Live Review: Shaky Knees Music Festival, 2019

Tame Impala; photo by Quinn Tucker

MAGNET’s Maureen Coulter finds the ever-expanding Atlanta indie-rock fest to be standing firmly on solid ground

While witnessing the explosion of live music events and festivals over the course of his career, veteran concert promoter Tim Sweetwood noticed a lack of indie-rock festivals in the South. 

If a fan in Georgia, the Carolinas or the Florida Panhandle wanted to see Phoenix, Cage The Elephant, the Pixies and Interpol in the same weekend, they’d have to trek down to Gulf Shores, Ala., for the Hangout Festival or up to Tennessee for Bonnaroo.

So in 2013, Sweetwood launched the Shaky Knees Festival in downtown Atlanta, which initially featured two days of both prominent and less mainstream acts including the Lumineers, Dr. Dog and Band Of Horses. It sold out.

Tash Sultana; photo by Roger Ho

Since then, Shaky Knees has expanded to a three-day event with more than 60 artists playing on four stages, attracting 65,000 attendees last year. Despite its rapid expansion, Shaky Knees is not gunning for Coachella and Bonnaroo. Rather, it has enhanced the fan experience to compete with other mid-size festivals while preserving Sweetwood’s seminal vision of serving the region’s indie-rock fans.

In an attempt to draw in a larger pool of fans, well-known festivals like Bonaroo and Firefly appeared to have abandoned their roots. While Bonaroo originated with a lineup comprised almost exclusively of jam-bands, and Firefly was initially indie-rock focused, both are now booking scores of hip-hop, rap and trendy acts with wide appeal like Cardi B and Paul McCartney.

Incubus; photo by Quinn Tucker

We may see a reversal of this trend. As the talent and amenities become repetitive, fans may begin to crave a more boutique experience, like the craft beer and “eat local” movements. If that’s the case, Shaky Knees is ahead of the curve. As the national festival circuit continues to boom and it seems like every event features Post Malone and glamping, Shaky Knees’ hometown Atlanta vibe and genre specialization may help it thrive among the more than 800 music festivals held each year in the United States.

Being a little fatigued of the current festival scene myself, I was eager to check out Shaky Knees to quench my unrelenting thirst for alternative-rock music from the early aughts, when people made mix CDs for each other with tracks they pirated off Limewire. I was stoked to see acts like Incubus, Interpol and Beck—all of whom soundtracked my formative years—headlining Shaky Knees, along with newer acts including Peach Pit and Tash Sultana.

Walden; photo by Quinn Tucker

The first day of the festival brought interspersing sun, clouds and random sprinkles, as energetic throngs of heavily tattooed hipsters, young and old, swarmed Central Park amid community baseball fields and jungle gyms, with Atlanta skyscrapers peeking over the tree line.

One of the early acts on Friday was Vancouver four-piece Peach Pit, which matched the crowd’s first-day vitality with lively banter and an upbeat brand of chill, grungy, head-bobbing pop/rock. During their set, they played several of their more well-known tracks such as the eponymous “Peach Pit,” as well as a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which they dedicated to “all the dads in the audience.” They announced they will begin recording a new album next month, and to will probably include the song “Psychics In LA,” which is about a cat psychic that frontman Neil Smith met in Los Angeles.

Interpol; photo by Charles Reagan

Later in the day, 23-year-old musical savant Tash Sultana slowed things down with luscious, psychedelic dream pop on the Peachtree Stage. The Australian artist—who has identified as non-binary and goes by the pronoun “they”—is exotic and androgynous, just like their music. While some of the songs featured flutes and sitar loops that gave them a hookah-lounge vibe, others showcased long, cascading guitar solos and Sultana’s soulful voice. While it was just one person onstage during the entire set, it sounded like a full band, with Sultana playing multiple instruments for each song and looping in sounds they’d created.

Formed in 1991, the genre-defying Incubus has been around almost 30 years. The last time I saw them in concert, after 1999 album Make Yourself was released, I was dropped off at the Electric Factory in Philly wearing tube socks, Vans, a baseball T-shirt and more make-up than my mom would approve of. While I was stoked to hear the band live, it was more important that I catch lead singer Brandon Boyd’s eye.

Dandy Warhols; photo by Katerina Barber

During Friday’s set, I noticed Brandon has a few streaks of grey in his mane these days, but he still has those fabulous abs, which he showed off to the audience as he gradually disrobed during the course of the performance. While they began with a popular track off Make Yourself, they stuck to primarily playing songs post-Morning View, like “Love Hurts” and “Dig.” They also delighted the over-35 crowd and lovers of ’80s pop when they covered Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.”

Early on Saturday afternoon at the Criminal Records Stage, local product Walden played in front of a modest-yet-passionate crowd. Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Richard Becker, keyboardist/vocalist Eric Hangartner, bassist Jamie de Lange and drummer Andrew Mendel, the four were schoolmates when they formed the band in 2012. Their performance included songs like “Green Light,” featuring Hangartner’s soaring vocals (reminiscent of Bono) and thundering, cheery rock melodies to match.

Electric Guest; photo by Charles Reagan

As looming clouds threated over the Peachtree Stage later that evening, Interpol kept the rain away with a memorable performance. Dressed in all black and sporting dark sunglasses and stern expressions, they resembled the agents from which they take their name. Paul Banks’ distinctively authoritative, monotone vocals and pounding, moody bass lines buzzed through the humid air as they played their most popular tracks including “Rosemary,” “PDA” and “Slow Hands.”

An hour later, the sky broke open, just as the Dandy Warhols kicked off their set under the tent at the Ponce de Leon Stage. Formed in 1994 at the tail end of the grunge era, the band has produced nine studio albums and 27 singles, including hits like “Bohemian Like You” and “We Used To Be Friends” that situated the band firmly in the cultural spotlight. During its Shaky Knees set, the quartet played songs that spanned its 25-year history. Their lo-fi, occasionally bluesy rock ‘n’ roll alternated between the methodical melodies that they’re known for and ear-numbing guitar feedback and psychedelic tangents. It was an appropriate soundtrack for the monsoon occurring outside.

Foals; photo by Roger Ho

The last day of the weekend was a win weather-wise, with sun, temps in the mid-70s and a pleasant breeze wafting through the grounds. It was also seemingly the most crowded—unlike the two previous days, even the early acts were packed. Musically it ended on a high note as well, with diverse performances that injected a heavy dose of energy into the thousands of festival-goers recovering from two straight days of heat and hangovers.

During Electric Guest’s mid-afternoon set, frontman Asa Taccone bounded onto the Peachtree Stage sporting an orange jumpsuit and brimmed hat, giddy about the fact that the band had animation and visuals for the first time in its seven-year history playing live shows, though he lamented that the band’s record company wanted them to play a nine-second loop for a 45-minute set. Songs like “The Bait,” “Head I Hold” and “Oh Devil” showcased their funky, infectious pop music, which turned the converted baseball field into a dance party. In the middle of the set, Taccone shot T-shirts out of a T-shirt gun while playing the GOT theme song, then qualified by saying “you know we are just a moderately successful band because we had to have a meeting about how many T-shirts we were going to give away—only two or we’ll be operating at a loss!”

U.K. quartet Foals played an early-evening set that showcased their transition over the past 15 years from minimalist art rock to a more aggressive, anthemic sound. 2008’s “Olympic Airways” featured staccato guitar and delicate melodies, and frontman Yannis Philippakis’ British accent was more prominent. Later in the set, he was mashing his guitar, screaming and crowd-surfing as he belted tracks like “Exits.” 

Tame Impala; photo by Roger Ho

The weekend wrapped up with Tame Impala, the Australian psychedelic rock project of Kevin Parker. Kaleidoscopic visuals, lasers, a confetti bomb and billows of smoke, combined with Tame Impala’s ambient rock music, was a stoner’s dream.

Shaky Knees was everything an indie-music lover could hope for in a festival. For one, I didn’t have to sit through an hour of Lil Wayne just to get to an artist I wanted to see, which usually happens at most festivals I attend. In addition to a solid lineup of alternative-rock OGs, I was also exposed to promising newcomers like Walden and Peach Pit. For those fans weary of mega-festivals who are looking for an immersive indie-rock experience, Tim Sweetwood and Co. have created the ideal affair.