Monday, May 16, 2016

Shaky Knees Retrospective, Day 1 Part One

Okay, here we go, the recap of this year's Shaky Knees music festival in lovely Atlanta, Georgia, the fourth of its kind. The first thing to note is the most obvious: for a festival that had been plagued for years with spotty weather - it rained non-stop for the first year, and alternated between rain and scorching temps the second - the weather this year couldn't have been more perfect. It was sunny and dry the entire time and the daily highs started in the mid 80s on Friday and struggled to reach 70 by Sunday.  It was perfect, and a welcome change of pace for the festival.

The second thing is the venue.  For each of its four years, Shaky Knees has been in a different locale - first, at The Masquerade and Atlanta's Historic Fourth Ward Park (the soggy year), then the parking lot at Atlantic Station (the wet and hot year), then Central Park and the Civic Center parking lot (a dry but hot year), and this year it moved to Centennial Olympic Park and the parking deck for the Georgia World Congress Center.  They made it work better than I expected, although there were some bugs (too little shade and too spread out), but by and large it didn't detract from the experience.  

We got there bright and early on the afternoon of Friday the 13th.  Friday was the warmest day of the weekend and the sun was pretty intense at times in the near-treeless Centennial Park, but we still had a good time and this is who we saw.

David Ramirez (Peachtree Stage) 

Houston's prolific singer and songwriter David Ramirez has earned a large and growing following for his soulful, introspective songs and passionate performances, although  he seemed swallowed up by the large Peachtree stage.   However, we arrived during the middle of his set, and restless with the excitement of exploring the festival site, didn't stay for long and instead headed over to the Ponce De Leon stage.

Saintseneca (Ponce De Leon Stage)

Indie folk band Saintseneca were founded and led by songwriter and lead vocalist Zac Little. They are a mercurial group that melds folk music from Appalachian and international traditions to postmodern pop and acoustically driven indie rock. From their beginnings in the heart of a small Appalachian town in Ohio, the band grew up at college in Columbus and are known for playing a large variety of instruments, including the banjo, baglama, bulbul, balalaika, bowed banjo, baritone ukulele, bass and bouzouki.  

Despite all this, the spirit of discovery still drove us, and before their set was over, we found ourselves off and wandering again.

The Japanese House (Buford Highway Stage)

The Japanese House is 20-year-old Londoner Amber Bain, who has earned comparisons to acts like Bon Iver, Imogen Heap, James Blake and, at times, Jeff Buckley.

We liked the combination of rock instrumentation and electronic atmospheres, and enjoyed the shade provided by the intimate Buford Highway stage, set in a small amphitheater with concrete steps for sitting and overhead banners for shade.  We finally managed to stay put for the remainder of at least one set before exploring the grounds some more.  

Kaleo (Peachtree)

Meanwhile, back at the Peachtree stage, soulful indie folk quartet Kaleo were performing.  Hailing from the town of Mosfellsbær, just outside of Reykjavik, Kaleo are fronted by the vocals and guitar of Jökull Júlíusson.  Based on their music, it's pretty obvious some blues and R&B records have made the journey over to Iceland, and since we had never heard Kaleo before, they were our first discovery of the weekend. 

Added bonus points: this year, for the first time, we splurged on Shaky Knees VIP passes, and were rewarded with a shaded pavilion offering free water, beer, and cider that was right next to the Peachtree stage with pretty good sightlines, and even if it wasn't right up front by the stage, there was a little VIP bullpen area at the right front of the stage for close-up photography.  We helped ourselves to the beverages and recharged our phones at the little power station there while enjoying Kaleo's songs before going on to the next stage and the next set.

The Front Bottoms (Boulevard Stage)

To be quite honest here, the Boulevard and Piedmont stages, set over by the Georgia World Congress Center, were too far from the rest of the stages to make it from one set to another without missing a handful of songs.  Worse, they set up a little pedestrian bridge supported by scaffolding to cross Marietta Street without leaving the festival grounds, and it was a nerve-wracking and claustrophobic experience climbing the rickety stairs and walking through the bridge.  Worse, there was a long, TSA-style line of people queuing up just to get to the single-file staircase leading up to the bridge, and it took several minutes just to begin the shaky climb up the scaffolding. Still, it was worth it for the chance to catch New Jersey's The Front Bottoms.

The Front Bottoms are fronted by vocalist Brian Sella on guitars and vocals, whose music is a wildly eclectic blend of pop, rock, and punk influences, sounding at times a little like The Mountain Goats and at others, The Andrew Jackson Jihad, but Sella's witty lyrics offer a unique, rapid-fire, slightly surreal perspective on the world around him.

Wolf Alice (Peachtree)

To get back to the Peachtree stage and the free VIP beer and shade, we would have to face the lines and cross the Death Bridge once again, but we came up with an alternate plan: instead of staying within the festival grounds to get back to the Peachtree stage and the rest of the festival, we exited the grounds at the little back entrance by the Piedmont stage and walked up Centennial Olympic Park Drive to the main entrance just a couple blocks up the road.  No lines, no hassle, no Shaky Bridges. As we left, we asked to make sure that we would be allowed to enter again, and the security guard said, in so many words, "Sure.  Whatever."  But when we got back up to the main entrance, we found that we weren't allowed back in after all, as the chip in our wristbands indicated that we hadn't "checked out" of the festival grounds and were still somewhere "inside" the Shaky Knees grounds.  The bored security guard didn't tell us that we had to swipe our wristbands as we left to indicate that we had exited the festival before we would be allowed back in. This situation necessitated us walking over to the main security tent outside of the festival, where they let us "swipe out" at a scanner there so that we could swipe back in again at the main gate, but that didn't work either, so we had to walk back to the security tent a second time and get escorted through the entrance gate before they allowed us back in.

A minor hassle, alleviated to some degree by the subsequent free VIP beer and the music of Wolf Alice.

Wolf Alice is a North London alt-rock outfit led by vocalist Ellie Rowsell.  One of the criticisms I've heard of the Shaky Knees lineup is that it was dominated by all-male bands, not allowing the women a chance to be heard.  I don't know what line-up selections and choices those critics had made, as we weren't even half-way through the first day and had already heard not one, but two bands fronted by London women (The Japanese House and Wolf Alice) and another band (Saintseneca) that prominently featured a woman member, and still had yet a third band of London women (Savages) ahead of us.  We guess it shows that you get what you expect.

Wolf Alice mixes folk, blues-rock, grunge, and electronic elements with vintage '90s indie rock in a manner not unlike The Cranberries, Garbage, or The Cardigans, and the free VIP beer, shade and phone recharging made the experience all the more enjoyable.

Although their song Bros sounds like one of any other 90s acts, the loud amplification at the large Peachtree stage made everything sound bigger and bolder than the video suggests, and at Shaky Knees, Wolf Alice sounded more like The Kills (another woman-fronted band that played later in the day) than The Sundays.  

Well, that's all we have time for today - we'll pick Day One up again tomorrow (or soon again at the very least).  Here's a view of the Atlanta carousel next to The Tabernacle from the Shaky Knees festival grounds as the parting shot for the day.

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