Shaky Knees 2017 came and went this weekend, and it was my third year attending the Atlanta-based rock festival (thank you, $71 wristband I won on eBay).
The festival is always a welcome relaxed three-day breeze. It has a very chill, laid-back vibe. You don’t notice anyone there to be seen rather than enjoy the music. There aren’t many people wearing weird and crazy outfits (not that there’s anything wrong with expressing yourself at a music festival). After doing a long camping EDM festival the weekend before, it was really just what I needed.
Headlined by LCD Soundsystem, The xx, and Phoenix, the festival does a good job of staying true to their original mission statement. Though they’ve grown over their five years, they haven’t tried to be something they aren’t. Though I was initially bummed that 2017’s lineup featured a lot of repeats and very few surprises (like last year’s Huey Lewis & The News booking), I found myself really enjoying the weekend. Hell, all of those repeats were back with new music, so it’s not really the same show anyways.
Here’s the five best things I saw at Shaky Knees 2017:
Headliners hit the mark
LCD Soundsystem, The xx, and Phoenix were all at Shaky Knees to prove different points.
LCD Soundsystem made a glorious return last year, starting with Coachella, playing pretty much every festival in existence. I got the sense that their hiatus really inflated their worth beyond what their actual drawing power, and this was supported by some of those festival crowds being very sparse. However, if you weren’t super familiar with LCD and you caught them at a festival last year, their show almost certainly made you interested. That’s why when they played Shaky Knees, I was happy to see that not ALL of the ’90s babies that were there for the preceding Cage the Elephant and Portugal. The Man sets made their ways towards the back. What did the band do? Blow us away with another memorable show, including a few new songs that sounded epic live. Long live James Murphy and Co.
The xx were, to my knowledge, playing their first U.S. festival headlining show. They delivered — their new album has really made them a worthwhile second-tier festival headliner as there’s enough upbeat tunes on I See You to keep the set from being too monotonous. The Jamie xx portion of the set was also a crowd favorite, and I’m certain this will be the first of many of these types of shows from them in the years to come.
Phoenix brought an awesome production that used a mirror to reflect a screen from the stage, and they reminded everyone that they’ve got a ton of tunes that are just super fun to dance to. When Thomas Mars ended the set by walking out into the deepest part of the crowd and standing on top of them, he really showed me he’s a bigger rock star than I gave him credit for.
Rumors of rock n roll’s death have been greatly exaggerated
With EDM music basically in control of the festival landscape these days, it was dope to experience three days of rock music without any raver kids solemnly waiting through their sets to see Major Lazer on the same stage. Shaky Knees gave a couple of bands a major platform to prove that they one day could be festival headliners themselves. Who passed this test? Cage the Elephant, most certainly. The charisma of lead singer Matt Shultz and guitarist Brad Shultz are nearly unmatched. Both went into the crowd at various points, and I loved how Brad didn’t let not having a microphone keep him from singing along all the words at the crowd with tons of energy. Matt has a bit of Mick Jagger in him, and it wouldn’t shock me if they’re headlining major festivals in the next few years.
Another act that should be climbing festival lineups is Portugal. The Man. They had one of the largest crowds of the weekend, as it stretched all the way back into the adjacent Piedmont Stage. They’ve already got enough sing-along anthems for a full festival set, and material from their upcoming new record sounds completely fresh and more soulful than anything they’ve previously released.
Other bands to keep an eye on climbing the lineup posters: Catfish and the Bottlemen and Temples. I was at the front of the crowd for Catfish, and my ears are still ringing from the piercing screams of young girls when Van McCann and his band took the stage. They knew every word, and one girl behind me threw her bra towards McCann (and horribly missed). Temples are very much of the Tame Impala vibe, and their last album is masterful and sounded pretty damn good live. Their Saturday night aftershow sold out, otherwise I would have caught them a second time.
Female-led acts dominate their sets
Though the lineup didn’t feature a ton of women-led acts, it did start at the top with headliners The xx‘s Romy Madley Croft down to early-day acts like Zipper Club and Margaret Glaspy. Sylvan Esso drew a massive crowd on the main stage Saturday, and frenetic female four-piece Warpaint delivered one of my absolute favorite sets of the weekend on Sunday. I saw a lot of younger kids in the crowd with their parents, and for the little girls it was awesome that they got to see themselves on stage that could put the thought into their heads that, “Hey, one day I could rock out on stage in front of thousands of people, too.” One complaint would be that there weren’t many people of color on stage, which is something the fest should target moving forward.
Ryan fucking Adams
Yes, I am devoting a whole bullet point to one single act. I’ve seen Ryan Adams a half-dozen times now, but seeing him play in support of his latest record Prisoner was high on my list of must-sees. Not only did all the new jams sound amazing live, but his between-song banter was at a high level as usual. Adams seems to either love or loathe a festival set depending on the mood.
At Coachella 2015, you could tell he was grappling with the sound bleed of a DJ in one of the nearby tents and didn’t enjoy it. But Shaky Knees is a perfect place for Adams to shine, and when there was some sound bleed from The Shins on the main stage, Adams decided to have a good time with it. He made a dad joke asking if they used to be called The Thighs and lost weight. Then when The Shins ended, he said over the microphone, “Hey, come check out the secret Shins show with all new material over here!” as a joking way to entice fans from that stage to run over and catch his set. Later on, “Magnolia Mountain” solo was cut short due to a broken string, keeping him from dropping an epic finish to the track. What did he do? He said fuck it, we’re gonna do it again and re-did just the end, and it was magical. Don’t ever stop being you, Ryan Adams.
Adams’ stage banter also was a complete 180 degree turn from some of the meek stage banter from talented indie rock acts like Whitney and Pinegrove.
Fest smartly downsizes
Last year, Shaky Knees featured five stages, this year it went down to three. While most would consider that disappointing, it wasn’t if you attended last year’s festival and remember the dreaded Bridge of Death as attendees began to call it. Fest-goers had to walk a bridge over a major road to the other two stages last year, and the thing was literally held by duct tape in certain spots and it was a real pain in the ass going from one side of the fest to the other. By downsizing, it was no more than five minutes from one stage to the other two. Sure, there was a bit of sound bleed at times, but nothing major. It kept everything central and it made the festival a bit more easy to digest. Good move, Shaky Knees.