- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
As exhausting and hot of a Day One that we had at Shaky Knees, we were mobilized and ready to hit the grounds early on Day Two for one of our Soundblab top picks. We were thrown a bit of a curveball when we found out the Starbucks next to our hotel was only open on weekdays. I guess they just cater to the suits. Anyway, thanks to the fine folks at Banjo Cold Brew on the festival grounds we made a speedy recovery.
First up and our Soundblab #2 pick of the fest was Australia’s Julia Jacklin touring in support of her incredible second album Crushing. It was also nice to see her getting a crack at the main stage with a respectable early day crowd on hand. Jacklin’s songs were as effective live as on the album, if not more so given the ample and clear power in her voice when it was called for. She opened with the first track of the album, ‘Body’. Her slow paced and smoky delivery made for a compelling approach to the song as it slowly built momentum. Of the solo artists we caught, Jacklin’s band was particularly sympathetic to the material. Jacklin showed great balance within songs like ‘Eastwick’, going from sepia-toned alto to a full-throated howl. ‘Leadlight’ and ‘Pool Party’ played out like country weepers and an extended ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ was a full-on torch song. With a quip that they were doing their best and a masking tape reminder on her guitar of ‘You Got This!!!’ there was little doubt that Jacklin was in clear command. This was particularly true on the advice-laden ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’ that she devastatingly played solo on electric guitar. You probably aren’t supposed to cry at festivals unless you’re screaming drunk at the end of the night, but Jacklin’s songs and a bit of dust in the air were sure to have watered a few eyes. Amazing set all around.
Sticking with an international flavor, British bands were out in force in the mid-day. We spent a few songs with the Ruen Brothers (Henry and Rupert Stansall), who are as quick with the wit as they are cranking out a rockabilly-flavored tune. Henry complained about Georgia’s early morning ban on whisky, but some kind soul managed to find him a Dixie cup full of it. The early song ‘Lonely Weekend’ was a cross-up of Elvis and The Everly Brothers mixed with Charlie Feathers’ staccato stuttering. While new song ‘Vendetta’ was a spy song in desperate search of a Bond movie to house it. A little more mannered, but no less lively was Jade Bird who made a splash at SXSW a few years back and now has her first LP out. I was expecting singer/songwriter fare, but Bird launched right into the bluesy ‘Uh Huh’ right from the start and it was pretty much off to the races from there. ‘Good At It’ chugged along with a double-time beat, but she was also able to slow things down with the grittier ‘Lottery’. She also joked that due to the heat that Atlanta should be named ‘Hotlanta’, which I think has been the city’s nickname since Sherman burned it to the ground. A funny moment whether intentional or not and totally charming nonetheless. And just in case things weren’t British enough, Queen copy band The Struts were also on hand.
We retreated back to the more intimate stages to catch the first American bands of the day. First up were Chapel Hill-based traditional Americana outfit Mipso, who in their matching clothes looked like they had just wrapped the morning shift at the local Publix. Playing as a five-piece, the group is anchored by guitar player Joseph Terrell and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough. Their greatest strength was in Terrell’s and Rodenbough’s vocals. He has one of those fail-safe baritones and she has a softer tone that breaks in all the right places. The standout song for me was Rodenbough’s lead on ‘Edges Run’ that also had the most distinctive sound (reminded me a bit of the sadly defunct Seryn in its layers). Most of the other songs, though beautiful, were more true to the traditional bluegrass vein. If there is any knock at all here, when they kicked off songs like ‘Louise’ and ‘Talking In My Sleep’ it sounded like they were going to play ‘Wagon Wheel’.
Sadly last time I saw Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner and her crew were marred with bad sound. Happy to report that was a distant memory as Zauner in chartreuse couture and her band bounded along with a crisply played set. Zauner has one new song in ‘Essentially’, but has been busy directing film and writing her autobiography, so the set continues to pull heavily from Soft Sounds From Another Planet. The lengthy ‘Diving Woman’ was a great hypnotic song to kick off on with Deven Craige’s (I believe) heady bass lines putting down a layer for the rest of the group to bound around on. As always, Zauner was in the air as much as on the ground with her boundless energy. ‘In Heaven’ was a scintillating pop song in a swirl of green lights, while ‘Road Head’ with its rumbling rhythm was a crowd favorite as Zauner put down her guitar to maneuver around a bit more. As much as I love her carefully constructed songs the straightforward ’12 Steps’ always sounds great live and made a nice foil for the cinematic highlight of ‘Boyish’. Zauner also took a shot at a local club owner for being such a dick and being happy they were able to play in front of a more welcoming crowd. One of the most joyful performers out there.
Things got interesting from here, as an approaching storm finally made its presence known causing the festival to cut down the pre-closer sets to forty minutes. Interpol and Gary Clark Jr. had totally different approaches to the predicament. Interpol opted to play what seemed their entire set as quickly as they could. Honestly, it added a “back against wall” urgency that gave their set a little extra pop given their deadpan approach. ‘If You Really Love Nothing’ benefitted particularly from the rushed approach, but all of their hits including ‘PDA’, ‘Evil’, and ‘All The Rage Back Home’ were bracing takes as well.
On the other hand, Gary Clark Jr. seemed to not be bothered by the darkening sky and took the time to let his songs unfold. I had seen Clark at another festival back in March and the sound system must have been woefully underpowered, as here at Shaky Knees with a big boy set-up he sounded fantastic and unbridled. So sheepishly now I understand why he’s such a big deal. He opened with his modern mutation on the Jimmy Reed classic ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and let the sparks fly early. His inattention to the weather was even more obvious on the slow and sultry ‘What About Us’. He got down and dirty on ‘Low Down Rolling Stone’ and playing the only Beatle’s cover I’ve heard in the last sixty days that wasn’t ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ he played a fiery take on ‘Come Together’ to close out his set.
Though I have misgivings about their latest release, Cage the Elephant no doubt makes for a bona fide festival closer. Both from their deep catalog of hit songs and Matt Schultz’s spazzed out stage presence. This was the biggest stage I had seen him on though and it did take a lot more mock seizures to get from one end of the stage to the other. The set opened to pretty much a full on downpour but was counterbalanced by fire effects all along the front of the stage. They opened with ‘Broken Boy’ off the new album but jumped all around their back catalog as well. ‘Cry Baby’ had a particularly crunchy guitar riff coming from Shultz’s older brother while ‘Spiderhead’ had Shultz launching himself off the mic stand. In the interest of longevity, we packed it in shortly after the start, but per the setlist, the band gamely got in a 21 song set giving the crowd what they came for. Extra points for Shultz for not resorting to most other artist’s joke of “Shaky Knees I’m down on my knees” and instead coming up with the bizarre rhyme of ‘Spanky Cheese’. If they can turn in that level of performance in those conditions let ‘em do it their way.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody (live music gallery available here)
Outstanding coverage from the Shakespeare of Soundblab. Thanks to you (and your wife) for letting the rest of us live vicariously through your travels. I know too well how much time, effort and money it requires to get something like this...
Outstanding coverage from the Shakespeare of Soundblab. Thanks to you (and your wife) for letting the rest of us live vicariously through your travels. I know too well how much time, effort and money it requires to get something like this accomplished.
Thanks Howard. Not sure anyone will ever top your six day run at SXSW!