After two years of quarantine, cancellations, new dates, more cancellations and a few brave concert promoters venturing forth in mid-2021 with the specter of COVID hanging over their events, the 2022 festival season finally feels—dare we say it?—normal. Coachella went off in April without a hitch, and a full slate of fests is planned for the remainder of the spring and summer. This included the ninth iteration of Shaky Knees, with a lineup of 60 bands across four stages in the heart of downtown Atlanta. The festival returned to its original late-April/early-May time slot, after being moved to Halloween weekend last year.
Shaky Knees is the ideal festival for millennials who are over the camping scene, prefer an earlier bedtime and hope to hear some nostalgic tunes from their youth as well as be exposed to new artists. Featuring dozens of indie, folk, pop/punk and rock-adjacent bands—including up-and-comers like Grandson, longtime indie darlings such as Spoon and Death Cab For Cutie and legacy acts like Green Day—this year’s festival took place in leafy Central Park, a 15-20 minute walk or five-minute Uber ride from all of the major hotels. Because of city ordinances, the headliners take the stage at 9:30 and end by 11, so fans can be in bed at a reasonable hour. This is in contrast to Bonnaroo or Firefly, where the music doesn’t stop until 2 a.m.
Attendees did not arrive in the midst of a miles-long, snaking caravan of RVs adorned with flapping Grateful Dead flags leading up to the fest. Nor did they feel the sonic whiplash of bouncing from a hip-hop set to a rock set to a pop set, like they would at most contemporary festivals that cram in as many genres as possible into three days. Despite Shaky Knees being musically homogenous by design, the attendees were more diverse than I’ve seen in all my years of festival-going: boomers, little kids, teenagers, millennials and a vast assortment of races and gender expressions. But it shouldn’t be surprising, as anyone can appreciate a festival that is truly “all about the music.”
Friday was the kickoff of the weekend, and the weather was brilliant. Fans trickled into the grounds all afternoon, giddy with excitement. The Atlanta high-rises peeked over the treetops, glinting in the sun. The air was warm and breezy, perfect for a music festival.
Canadian-American rap/rock artist Grandson bounded onto the stage with an energy that belied his 3:30 p.m. set time. During his performance, he engaged with the crowd between songs like a stand-up comedian, bantering with the fans close to the stage. With politically tinged lyrics, heavy bass and edgy guitar, his music was reminiscent of Rage Against The Machine. His onstage antics were as well: He riled everyone up by climbing the side of the stage during one song, then scrambled onto the giant Shaky Knees sign for his finale.
Currently on tour promoting new album Lucifer On The Sofa, Spoon played an early-evening slot to a warmed-up audience that was very familiar with the band’s music. Sporting a black cowboy hat, lanky frontman Britt Daniel sang new tunes and old favorites in his distinctive, jagged voice, including Lucifer ballad “My Babe” and the jangly “The Way We Get By” (which turns 20 this year).
Later that evening, the sun set behind the trees and the city’s high rises were illuminated, adding a twinkling, summertime-cafe-light vibe to the night sky. It was then that Friday headliner Green Day took the stage amid an explosion of lasers and pyrotechnics. Billie Jo Armstrong hasn’t aged a day, and his energy hasn’t waned either. Throughout the band’s dynamic 90-minute set, the spiky-haired Armstrong ricoched across the stage, wailed on the guitar and barked into the microphone, growing in intensity throughout the show.
The enduring pop/punk band curated a diverse selection of hits from its nearly 30 years in the spotlight, including “When I Come Around,” “American Idiot” and “Pollyanna.” The performance gave the audience an appreciation of Green Day’s body of work and staying power as a band. I remember listening to Dookie in the car to soccer practice as a 10-year-old, and there I was in my mid-30s singing along as Armstrong and Co. played live to a crowd of thousands.
Saturday ushered in more pleasant weather for the busiest day of the fest. Many Atlantans, as well as a plethora of regional residents from neighboring states like North and South Carolina, decided to come for the day. In addition to enjoying the tiny $10 slices of pizza and $15 watered-down beer offered at concessions, the tattooed masses were treated to a straight-up rock undercard including Guided By Voices and Kurt Vile & The Violators.
Later that evening, dreamy electronic-pop outfit Chvrches took the Peachtree Stage. Singer Lauren Mayberry emerged in a gold sequined dress and spoke giddily to the crowd in a soft Scottish accent: “I don’t know about you, but right after this, I am running like hell to the other side of the festival to see Japanese Breakfast, then running like hell back here to see Nine Inch Nails!” Chvrches’ heavy bass and synth combined with Mayberry’s sweet vocals on songs like “Recover” and “The Mother We Share,” which was the perfect score for the spring sunset the audience collectively witnessed.
Saturday headliner Nine Inch Nails emerged onto a smoky stage silhouetted Sin City-style against a backdrop of tire racks and metal machinery. Trent Reznor announced to the crowd that Shaky Knees was only NIN’s second show in four years—although he and bandmate Atticus Ross have been busy winning Oscars for their film scores in recent years. NIN worked through its catalog of songs spanning more than three decades, highlighting its trademark industrial sound: buzzy, throbbing bass, edgy guitar and ominous, angsty vocals, punctuated by seizure-inducing flashing white lights.
A variety of indie-pop, folksy and punk artists rounded out the final day of the festival. Prior to the date, thunderstorms threatened to ruin the afternoon shows. When we showed the forecast to our Atlanta-native Uber driver, he waved it off. “Naw, it ain’t gonna rain.” And he was correct. It ended up being just as warm and festival-appropriate as the previous two days.
Band Of Horses is on tour promoting Things Are Great and stopped by Shaky Knees to showcase a few new tunes as well as some old favorites. Frontman Ben Bridwell was effusive in his gratitude to be performing in front of a crowd again after quarantine. On the sun-splashed Piedmont Stage, the band played signature mournful anthems like “Funeral” as well as upbeat Things Are Great tracks like “Warning Signs” and “Crutch.” (Read our Q&A with Bridwell, conducted the day of BOH’s Shaky Knees set.)
On Sunday evening, Death Cab For Cutie launched its set with an extended version of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” much to everyone’s delight. You could tell that a significant ratio of audience members were Death Cab fans, as they sang along to the lyrics of most of the band’s offerings. Clad in a simple, cuffed, black button-down and fitted black pants (which seems to be the dress code for rock stars again these days), frontman Ben Gibbard deftly shifted between piano and guitar on songs like “Title And Registration,” “Crooked Teeth” and “Soul Meets Body,” his sensitive voice evoking the youthful passion, love and heartache that Death Cab had been a soundtrack to for so many of us in the crowd.
After years essentially stuck in the house, artists and fans alike no longer take live-music events for granted. So many people are finding comfort in the nostalgia-inducing acts that festivals like Shaky Knees feature—as well as joy in being around kindred spirits—that this weekend felt like a collective release. I’ve never seen so many children sporting cute, little noise-canceling earphones at an event like this.
It’s just more evidence that folks decided to reorder their priorities during the pandemic—and what is most important is meaningful experiences with people they care about. For the organizers of Shaky Knees, this is music to their ears, but also a mandate to live up to for next time.