By John Flannagan, Rusty Odom and C.W. Smith
Shaky Knees has solidified its place in the festival canon by doing one thing and doing it very well. Since its inception, the festival has been straightforward and unapologetic: It’s a rock festival, plain and simple.
The creative team behind the event has had to fight through various venue changes in order to keep it alive, and their resiliency seems to have paid off. The return to Central Park this year thus far has been a home run.
For 2018, the Ponce De Leon Stage – which I believe is named after the guy who invented Atlanta (or maybe even all of Georgia) – is situated under a large tent where the Buford Highway Stage stood during the festival’s last stint at Central Park in 2015. Two stages also were placed at the end of the civic center parking lot that year, placed side by side with a shared VIP space in the middle and alternating in use. It was a pragmatic use of the space (albeit a hot one, considering that there was little reprieve from the sun-soaked concrete). With construction taking place at the civic center, those stages are gone now. Shaky Knees has had to be creative in terms of logistics from the start, and if all the trouble of moving locations led to the Criminal Records Stage, it was all worth it.
No matter the venue, we’ve discovered some of our favorite artists at Shaky Knees’ smallest stage throughout the years, so we were looking forward to seeing what the return to Central Park would mean for this component. The construction has consolidated the “shady” half of the grounds and forced this stage onto a rolling yard filled with magnolia trees and various other shade providers. It’s a veritable oasis from the heat and resides as one of the most comfortable stage areas in the festival landscape. One fan was overheard saying, “It’s going to be hard to keep me away from this stage.” That fan was me. The only negative from the shady half was the lack of restroom, but it sounds like organizers have added a couple dozen for day two. The Shaky Knees model is basically a study guide for those looking to put on an event of their own.
Throughout the weekend, we’ll touch on two themes that are easily noticeable and unique to this festival. The first is the Antipodes connection: New Zealand’s Marlon Williams was joined by Australia’s Courtney Barnett on Friday, and previous versions of the festival have included Aussie bands Tame Impala and Pond. Shaky Knees was the first festival that the former ever headlined, and the latter put together our favorite performance of last year’s event.
Another theme is the reconciliation with ’70s guitar rock. While most festivals are shifting towards electronically themed entertainment, Shaky Knees has stayed the course, giving a platform and hopes to kids still making noise in the garage.
Here are a few of our favorites from the opening day. – Rusty Odom
If you’re picking winners of day one at Shaky Knees, Nashville’s *repeat repeat is certainly in the running. Playing the always-dreaded early-afternoon (12:30) set did little to quell the band’s energy to kick off the festivities at the aforementioned Criminal Records Stage. Having left Nashville at 3 a.m. that morning in order to make the slot, frontman Jared Corder exclaimed, “It’s late for us; we’re ready to party!” Corder was engaging and hilarious throughout their 30-minute set, which featured “Speaker Destroyer” and the ever-popular “Girlfriend,” which showcased Corder and wife Kristyn swapping lyrics. *repeat repeat ended its magnificent set with Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire.” Afterwards, Corder joked that it was a song originally performed by Cardi B. The engaging performance won over the masses and proved to be the perfect start to the day. – John Flannagan
The female California three-piece came out firing on all cylinders on the Criminal Records Stage, playing a set that sounded as if it could’ve soundtracked the first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Their set really continued the theme from the previous evening’s Black Angels show, providing a psychedelic yet dreamy soundscape for the mid-afternoon festivalgoers. L. A. Witch is a no-nonsense kind of group, and its members delivered 30 minutes of music in a very businesslike manner. We are keeping an eye on this band, as it surely is going to rise higher on the festival circuit in the upcoming years. – JF
Another artist on the rise who performed at the Criminal Records Stage on Friday was New Zealand crooner Marlon Williams. Having recently adjusted his sound from a previous project (Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders), the dapper singer-songwriter brought the tempo down in a glorious way, delivering a soothing set that was reminiscent of Chris Issak. With themes of jealousy and loneliness, Williams’ set beckoned some of the best catcalls all day. His appearance was a rare treat for those in attendance, as well, as he rarely tours the States. – JF
David Byrne’s 12-piece band lived up to the promises he made when his new album “Utopia” and subsequent tour were announced in January. Performing a career-spanning set, the ensemble shouldered their instruments and dressed in matching gray suits. With subtle yet powerful choreography, the group marched to the maestro’s command. The Talking Heads frontman’s performance was more than a simple musical set; as a result, the Shaky Knees crowd was more than appreciative of the effort. Byrne seemed to be in a jovial mood, and was pleased with the fan reception for both his classic works with the Talking Heads and his solo efforts. The new material of “Utopia” went over well, too, and Byrne ended his set with “Hell You Talmbout,” a Janelle Monae cover. It served as a poignant tribute to the many young lives that have been lost in recent years. – JF
It’s hard to believe, but the Alabama-founded Waxahatchee played their first-ever Shaky Knees performance on the Ponce De Leon stage on Friday evening. This wasn’t lost on the always-charming Katie Crutchfield, who was sure to mention this fact upon taking the stage. As a cool breeze blew through the tent, Waxahatchee began a roller-coaster ride that was rocking at times and that featured down-tempo music at others. Crutchfield’s sister provided nice harmonies on some songs, and the crowd enthusiastically approved of the show. – C.W. Smith
Neighbors sitting on rooftops across the street from the Piedmont Stage got to check out some free shows, which included the triumphant return to the stage for Fleet Foxes, who are in the midst of an extensive tour following a six-year hiatus. Robin Pecknold and his bandmates brought forth their folksy charm in full force to the best-attended show of the day for that stage. They were accompanied by a horn section for a few songs including “Blue Ridge Mountains,” which provided a picturesque background to a beautiful Georgia sunset. – C.W. S.
A 10-minute timer signaled the impending arrival of former White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather frontman Jack White. He blistered through an hour and 39 minutes of his two-hour slot, which was enough for many but left others wanting more. The first set lasted around an hour and featured four White Stripes songs and one Dead Weather cut along with several songs from his solo catalogue. The encore began with the Raconteurs’ “Steady as She Goes.” Soon after, White brought out the first guest of the weekend in Third Man recording artist Lillie Mae for “What’s Done is Done” and “Love Interruption.” White finished the set with three Stripes tunes. “The Hardest Button to Button” included a brief snippet of “Pyscho Killer,” and “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” led to “Seven Nation Army.”
White’s stage setup was fit for a king, with LED steps that surrounded the frontman in a jagged semicircle. Three huge screens hung behind the band, and blue was the color of choice throughout.
In the end, White gave first-time fans a great look at what he’s capable of as an artist, and he gave longtime fans plenty to smile about, as well – even with 21 minutes left on the clock. – RO
Most surprising cover of the day
The Ghost of Paul Revere – Baba O’Riley (The Who)