- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta is a great one to kick off the Summer festival season for us East Coasters. This year they offered up a stacked lineup with the Friday opening slate being particularly strong. With four stages and two of them firing at all times, it makes for a fast-paced day zigzagging Atlanta’s Central Park to take it all in.
First up at Shaky Knee’s only covered stage was up and coming singer-songwriter Taylor Janzen. We covered one of her earlier EPs Interpersonal last year, but this day she was celebrating the release of her new one, Shouting Matches. Still playing confessional stripped-down tunes ala Julien Baker, she brought a fuller sound fleshed out with guitar, bass, and drums. She played ‘Waiting Room’ from her prior release, but sounded even more confident with her newer material. Newer songs like ‘Prodigal Son’ evidenced a vocal power that easily held its own with the band in overdrive. While ‘New Mercies’ showed a folkier side on a song that got brisker as it went.
Directly across from where Janzen played, Austin five-piece Duncan Fellows were also celebrating the announcement of new music on its way. Fronted by Colin Harmon and Cullen Trevino - both on guitar and vocals - the band’s songs tend to meander along with hooks and barbs that don’t always repeat but nonetheless catch your attention. They started with a pair of songs from 2017’s Both Sides of the Ceiling. Harmon kicked it off with ‘Cul De Sac’ and Trevino followed on lead with one of their best songs, ‘Sleeper’. By the end of the second song, the band was fully locked in with Harmon and Trevino swapping lines and the rest of the band bounding along with them. From the upcoming EP, they played the just released ‘Deathwish Fish’ that has the sure to be remembered line “put me together I’m broken” that pops on the last word. A cover of the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was particularly fiery (this must be the cover song du jour as we also saw Durand Jones cover it a few weeks back), and their poppiest tune to date in ‘Fresh Squeezed’ goes down easy. We’ve seen the group several times now and they were clearly at their confident best here playing to an oversized crowd for the early slot they had. A good time for them to be making a push and they have the songs and chops to back it up.
Next up and one to get your pulse firing for the rest of the day was Low Cut Connie. Adam Weiner’s Philly based band is named for a waitress and Weiner’s piano centerpiece, Nellie, is named for boogie piano player Nellie Lutcher, in lieu of prior piano Shondra that was named for a dancer. That’s all the set up you need. Dressed in a bronze lame jacket over a wife beater T and gold lion pendant, Weiner approaches the show like a cross between Frankie Valli and Jerry Lee Lewis. He spends as much time on top of and under his piano as he does pounding on it. A perfect festival song, they started with ‘All These Kids Are Way Too High’ ranting on about “plastic cups and ticket stubs”. With two guitarists and an added vocalist, the band is built for speed and rarely slows down the pace. Things got a little bit slinkier on ‘Shake It Little Tina’ (in honor of Ms. Turner, but directed at himself) and did get truly soulful for a moment on ‘Beverly’. Weiner spends as much time singing anthemic songs as he does posing, mock stomping cameras, and just generally playing to the crowd, but as it should be it’s all about the entertainment and that he can bring.
Having to criss-cross for the next two sets we weren’t able to stay too long at Atlanta’s own Curtis Harding, but he brought a hard soul sound to our first trip to the main stage. In addition to the standard line-up, Harding had a sax/keyboard player on hand to deepen his sound. Harding started with the earlier song ‘The Drive’ and whipped up a wall of sound right from the start. The wah-wah shimmer of ‘Go As You Are’ stood out as an early highlight and its one you’d be just as happy to carry on for minutes on end. We needed to move along, but Harding was working it out to the sax flavored ‘On And On’ as we left.
Making our way back to the smaller stages, Soundblab’s #1 festival pick, IDLES, did not disappoint with their quick 45-minute slot. The crowd was already packed in well in advance of the set as the band did their own soundcheck with plenty of guttural grunts to make sure everything was in its high fidelity best state (bassist Adam Devonshire’s screams were attention getting to say the least). Joe Talbot’s (pictured above) pre-set pacing back and forth looked an effort to blow off some steam but was likely more to case the place out. When the set opened, lead guitarist Mark Bowen (right) was back sans most of his clothes to set the tone. The British punk band goes from the political to the personal, but all done at full bore. They opened with the dismissive ‘Heel/Heal’ from their debut but spent most of their time on songs from last year’s Joy As An Act of Resistance. The moshing started and never waned from the opening song, but some were tapping out early on. The elongated ‘Never Trust A Man With A Perm’ had air raid chords coming from Bowen and he was out in the crowd by the end of it. ‘Love Song’ had Talbot stair-stepping along to the pummeling beat and he took a pause to introduce the next song. Talbot explained how things were a bit fucked up over in England right now, but that they still welcomed their fifth generation immigrants before launching into ‘Danny Nedelko’ - easily the most timely song of last year. By the end of the song, Bowen was back in the audience standing on shoulders mic in hand with Talbot playing guitar on stage. Talbot chewed his way through ‘Samaritans’ and a tribal take on ‘Mother’. A ferocious 3/4 hour that towered over the day’s proceedings.
Being a bit adrenaline-addled after IDLES' pummeling is probably not the best frame of mind and body to take in Sharon Van Etten’s set. If IDLES were rock and roll at its rawest, Van Etten is calm, cool, and collected if not with a bit of an edge. Pulling heavily from her outstanding Remind Me Tomorrow from earlier this year, the set started with a big, glitchy boom before settling into the atmospheric ‘Jupiter 4’. Other songs from that album included the synth-heavy ‘Comeback Kid’, a vibe-y take on ‘You Shadow’, and the cool sheen of ‘Seventeen’. From her folkier back catalog she played engaging takes on ‘One Day’ and ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’. Van Etten writes great emotive songs and sounded just fine, but the tone of her set would have carried much better in the cooler after dark than in the blazing mid-day.
Across the field, Liz Phair put on a dynamic set and looked like she was having the time of her life (maybe she was). She apologized for starting on top of Van Etten’s set (which went a tad over) and quipped she’d never seen beach balls batted around during one of her shows. It was as if thirty year’s time was stripped away when she and her band launched into ‘Supernova’, that had Phair grooving along in a lock-kneed shimmy. Her band was fully locked in themselves by the time they got to the retro-ey raw ‘6’ 1”’ that sounded great. Phair took a pause to have us all scream out “Happy Graduation Nick” to her son, which was a cool moment that my own college-aged son called the ultimate Mom move, but he also really liked the music. Not surprisingly, Phair played a lot from Exile in Guyville and the muscular take on 'Soap Star Joe' worked particularly well. Closing with the ever-angsty ‘Fuck and Run’ and ‘Divorce Song’ it’s nice to see Phair out performing and enjoying the well-deserved renaissance.
Next up were back to back sets from St. Louis emo band Foxing (right) and a nostalgic set from Tears for Fears (left). I’d seen Foxing open for Manchester Orchestra and were impressed by them. Here playing on a smaller stage to a group of their fans leader Conor Murphy was much more screamotional than what I had seen before. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but not necessarily my thing. He was engaged with and literally into the crowd quite a bit. He also got off the best joke of the day in talking about how he was surprised they had a good crowd playing in the same slot as Incubus (we demurred on that one as well). The hypnotic guitar line of ‘The Medic’ and the call and response vocals with the band’s keyboard player on ‘Won’t Drown’ made those songs stand out. The involved ‘Lich Prince’ complete with Murphy on trumpet was also a highlight. With songs also playing off of emotions, Tears for Fears’ Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal played to a packed crowd as the penultimate act of the night. Tough call between Liz Phair and Orzabal as to who was happiest to be here. Frankly, I had forgotten how many hits these guys had back in the day and they played inspired versions of them all. They opened with ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and ran off a string of songs in ‘Seeds of Love’, ‘Pale Shelter’, ‘Change’, ‘Mad World’, and of course closing on crowd sing-a-long ‘Shout’. And in case they didn’t have enough songs of their own they touched on Paul McCartney’s ‘Let ‘em In’ and played a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Clearly a crowd favorite set of the day.
To cap off an exhausting and in our opinion best day’s lineup, Beck was the headliner. I’ve always been a big fan and not sure how his live show has eluded me for decades. Still a little trippy, hippy awkward, nonetheless he puts on a hell of a show. He opened strong with a blues-ed out version of ‘Devil’s Haircut’ and went straight into a muscled up ‘Loser’. Playing with a six-piece backing band and backdrops of constant colors and effects it was a non-stop party atmosphere. He played five songs from Guero, including an inspired ‘Que Onda Guero’ and ‘E-Pro’ sounded great as well. A solo acoustic take on ‘Debra’ was surprisingly effective and Beck subbed out J.C. Penney for the home town retail juggernaut of Home Depot in the song's intro. ‘Lost Cause’ and ‘Blue Moon’ were also played acoustically, but with backing from three of his band members. The encore consisted of an extended take on ‘Where It’s At’ that worked in snippets of ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Miss You’, and ‘Once in a Lifetime’ along with others. A consummate, if not a bit quirky, showman, Beck knows how to keep you engaged and on your feet twelve hours into the day. Great pick by Shaky Knees to close out Day One. Whew!
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody (except for Beck Gig Review cover page photo provided by Shaky Knees Festival/Roger Ho)