Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shaky Knees, Day Two, Reconsidered

Have You Ever Seen The Rain? - The Lumineers
It makes you a better person when you admit that you were wrong about something.  Anyone can take a position on some issue and then stick to that position and defend it, even as overwhelming evidence accumulates to the contrary.  But to step back and say that you realize now that you were wrong before is the mark of a better man or woman.  Sunday, amid all the mud, flood, and beer of the second day of Shaky Knees, I had several opportunities for humble self improvement.

Specifically, last Friday I took the position that the music festival didn't seem to be managed in a very professional way. This opinion was based on the fact that they had to send out an email to ticket holders clarifying that you did not have to go to the box office before the festival began to exchange your ticket for a wristband as suggested by some of their earlier messages.  And I still maintain that a bicycle valet is no substitute for parking in traffic-clogged and automobile-obsessed Atlanta.

But as it turned out, other than those faux pas, the festival was extremely well organized and professionally run.  The lines at the gate were short and quick, the security staff was friendly and non-intrusive (unlike the often surly security at The Masquerade), and the bands started their sets right on time.  In fact, in most instances, Band A would take the stage at the exact moment that Band B finished their set on another stage, creating a seamless, continuous concert experience.  So I'll admit it - my initial position was wrong and I now acknowledge that the festival was in fact very well organized and professionally managed.  I'll get to my other mea culpae later.

I had wanted to get there by 12:30 on Sunday to show some support for Atlanta's Von Grey, but still exhausted from the previous day, I slept until nearly noon so that didn't happen.  When I did finally did arrive at the festival grounds, the  weather couldn't have been more different than the day before.

The sun was out, the temperatures were warmer, and it was an all around better day than Saturday's chilling deluge.  There were still lots of  mud and puddles on the ground, but other  than that, it was as if the music gods were rewarding us for putting up with their tantrums of the previous day.

Over on the Old Fourth Ward Stage, South Carolina's Shovels and Rope were on stage.

The music of Shovels and Rope blurs the distinction between country and folk.  During their set, I had somehow managed to be oblivious to whatever line I had crossed and found myself stage side in the VIP viewing area.  When I left, security didn't seem upset or angry that one had slipped past them (see what I mean about friendlier staff?).

I got over to the North Avenue Stage in time to grab some rail space for the Heartless Bastards set.  The Bastards play an enjoyable indie rock with some great guitar work and the warm vocals of Erika Wennerstrom.  

At times, they gave off a sort of Drugstore Cowboys vibe, but with less of a folk-rock and more of a harder, garage-rock sound. 

A good-sized crowd had turned up to hear the band play. I met a couple at the rail next to me who not only drove all the way down from Calgary, Alberta, just for this festival, but specifically to hear the Heartless Bastards perform.  Although the audience was noticeably larger than on Saturday, I met no one who would admit to not having been there the day before.  But come on guys, there weren't nearly this many here yesterday, this has to be somebody's first day.

The next band up, Delta Spirit, played with a lot of enthusiasm and gave the audience lots of opportunities for participation (sing alongs, hand clapping, telling the band how you're doin', etc.).  The ubiquitous Kenny Crucial was noted in the audience during the Delta Spirit set. 

As they played, a lone dark cloud passed overhead and sprinkled a few raindrops on the audience.  It turned out to be only a sprinkle and didn't last for more than 5 minutes (about one song), but it got us all pulling out our rain gear and ponchos and hoods in anticipation of more.  However, by the time we were all geared up, the cloud had passed and it was once again a beautiful day.

Interesting note: Delta Spirit songs often employ two drummers (on other songs, one of the drummers moves over to the keyboards), and the band has as large a floor tom as any that I've ever seen.  I wasn't even sure how one would even play it, until near the end of their set when the keyboardiest/drummer grabbed a pair of maracas and started wailing on it.

Philadelphia's Kurt Vile came on stage for his set with The Violators wearing a Flaming Lips t-shirt and wasted no time launching into the title track of his new album, the appropriately-titled-for-the-day Walkin' on a Pretty Daze.  

Like yesterday's Roadkill Ghost Choir, Kurt Vile had a sort of War On Drugs sound, which is not surprising as Vile was a founding member of that band.  One could also hear traces of Neil Young and Crazy Horse and even a little bit of a Velvet Underground drone.

The Violators performed a sort of band reduction during their set, starting out as a quintet,

but after a while, they were reduced to a quartet.  Talk about jangle pop - the quartet version of the band featured three guitars, drums, and no bass.

Eventually, The Violators just became Kurt, solo.

As his 60-minute set progressed, the skies were becoming darker and darker, and soon gusting winds picked up suggesting that a downpour was imminent.  The rest of the band came back on stage and joined Kurt in a fierce, loud, feedback-drenched, Crazy Horse-style finale, and as they hit peak intensity, a big gust of wind lifted up the stage-top canopy and dumped what looked like about 100 gallons of water onto the engineers' control panel. I hope no equipment was damaged, but it was pretty amusing watching the engineers frantically try to cover everything up with tarp and plastic sheeting as the band wailed away, and it was hard not to think that The Violators had just literally blown the roof off of the stage.

In any event, amusing or not, metaphorical or literal, a hard rain came down for about the next 10 or 15 minutes as Dr. Dog took over the Old Fourth Ward Stage.  The last time we saw Dr. Dog, they were in Candler Park in the middle of another drenching downpour, that one beginning while they were playing their song Swimming With the Sharks ("The rain is falling, it’s after dark, the streets are swimming with the sharks").  I used the time during their rain-soaked set this year to get something to eat and find a good spot to watch The Antlers at the North Avenue Stage.

The gambit worked out well, as I got a position just one person back from the pole.  Better still, the rain let up about a half hour before The Antlers' set time.

We've seen The Antlers several times before, twice in one day during MFNW 2011 and later that year at the adjacent (yet still godforsaken) Masquerade.

Back in 2011, they were still a band that had released one wildly popular, cult-favorite album, Hospice, and were out to prove they were more than "that Hospice band" by promoting an excellent new album, Burst Apart.  Now, having proven themselves to be the real thing, they performed with much more authority, even swagger, playing melancholy and atmospheric songs from both albums plus their newest EP, Undersea.  

In the I-Didn't-Know-That Department, keyboardist Darby Cicci said that he lives - or once lived - just a couple blocks away from the festival site and that the gig felt like a homecoming to him.  Didn't know he was from Atlanta.

Meanwhile, however, up in the sky, dark clouds were once again returning.  There was a bit of a race as to which would finish first - The Antlers' set or the calm before the storm.

The storm won and it started raining, hard, as The Antlers wrapped up their set with their usual closer, Putting The Dog to Sleep.  Twoard the end of the song, guitarist Timothy Mislock dramatically stepped out from under the cover of the stage to deliver the climactic guitar solo while heroically standing in the downpour.

The rain would continue for the next hour and a half, up until the very end of the set by the evening's headliners, The Lumineers.  It was my first time seeing the Grammy Award-winning, Colorado folk-rock band.

I've previously discussed the ambivalent feelings I and other indie-music fans have with success.  We want to cheer a band on, encourage others to listen to them, and so on and so forth, but as soon as they start getting  popular and getting lots of attention and heavy radio play, as soon as their songs start turning up in automobile and beer commercials on television, we tend to back off, claiming we were never really that big fans in the first place.  This has happened to a lot of bands, particularly folk-rock bands like Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters & Men.  It is happening now with The Lumineers.

Not that The Lumineers aren't almost asking for our contempt.  They're almost the Disney version of an indie folk-rock band, or perhaps a Hollywood parody of an indie folk-rock band, even though they're not from Hollywood.  Still, Central Casting couldn't come up with a better approximation of what middle America must think an indie folk-rock band would look and sound like.  They're actually from Denver, but they dress like they're 19th Century Irish immigrants.  They have an elaborate Prairie Home Companion-style stage set; in fact, there's very little about them that doesn't practically scream "PBS."  

And talk about derivative: Oh look, there's a mandolin, just like Head & The Heart and Blind Pilot.  Oh look, there's a female cellist, just like Other Lives and Ra Ra Riot (or for that matter, Murder By Death, who performed earlier on another stage while I was watching Heartless Bastards).  Oh look, there's a glockenspiel, just like everybody else, and in case you might not otherwise have noticed it, they seem to be incapable to play it without one band member holding it up theatrically while another member strikes a few notes with equal flourish.  

Even their signature tune, Ho Hey, sounds like it was written by a focus-study group analyzing popular lyrical motifs in indie folk-rock songs.  I could go on, but you get the picture and at this point I think I might have pissed off at least half of the people who've managed to come across this post and read this far down.

So now I'm going to piss off the other half with my second mea culpa, my second admission that I was wrong about something.  Despite all my misgivings, despite all my reservations, even despite my earlier plan to leave Shaky Knees after The Antlers finished their set, I have to admit that The Lumineers are actually quite good.  Despite all the hokum, everything works and they're all terrific musicians who put on a thoroughly entertaining show.  As soon as they stepped out on the rain-soaked stage and opened their set with an all-too-appropriate cover of Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, I was hooked.  I was then thoroughly entertained for the next 90 minutes as I stood in the downpour with the largest crowd of the entire festival.

So, I'll be the better person and just say it: I was wrong.  The Lumineers are a great band.  If  they're successful, it's because of their talent, not a case of mediocrity finding its own level.  And as for the costumes, as Frank Zappa once said "Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform and don't kid yourself."  If we're honest about it, wasn't every band conscious of what they wore on stage and the image it would project?  Weren't they all wearing uniforms of one sort or another?  Wasn't Kurt Vile's Flaming Lips t-shirt every bit as much of a "costume" as The Lumineers suspenders and hats?

During their signature Hey Ho, lead singer Wesley Schultz stopped the song midway and asked the audience to put down their cell phones and cameras for at least one minute and just enjoy the present moment.  It felt a little scripted, but it still was a surprising moment.

Okay, so they're the kind of band that can't introduce their members, saying "And on the piano, we have . . . " without said member literally jumping up on the piano.  I'm surprised they didn't use the old  joke about "the farmer, outstanding in his field" (although for all I know that line might be buried in their lyrics somewhere - I don't really pay too much attention to lyrics).  

What I'm saying is that it all works, and if you can't enjoy yourself at a Lumineers concert, I'm sorry to have to inform you that you probably can't enjoy yourself at all.  And how can you not love a band that ends the evening with a cover of The Talking Heads' Home?

In all, they delivered about a four- or five-song encore culminating with Home, stepping out of the lights to the very edge of the stage (the rain had conveniently stopped for them by that point).  They normally perform that last song without amplification, but given the size of the audience at the outdoor festival, wisely allowed their closing song to be heard by all.

So at around 10:00 pm on a soggy Sunday evening, that was it for the inaugural Shaky Knees music festival. The weather had been not just awful but god-awful, but that brought out the best in the fans, in the musicians, and in the volunteers and workers (including security).  It could have turned out terribly, with cancellations, long delays, and ineptitude, but instead it all came off without a hitch.

Except, of course, for the weather.  Which brings me to my final mea culpa - I realized from this weekend that I had the title of this blog, Water Dissolves Music, wrong.  If anything, it seems that music dissolves water, or to paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, "Music will get you through times of bad weather better than weather will get you through times of bad music."

Final note:  The only reason that I'm including the following clip, another video digest from my camera, is because I posted yesterday's clip, and although the quality of this one is also pretty poor, it's at least slightly better than yesterday's.  It's not going to win any awards, not by a long shot, but at least it's a slight improvement over Saturday's and you can't say that I'm not, if anything, a completist.

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