In the rankings of the great American rock music festivals, Shaky Knees seems perpetually on the rise. Since its two-day beginnings in 2013, Shaky has grown by leaps and bounds, to the point where its lineups are routinely able to compete against the biggest and best festivals in the country.
Still, rarely is this so clearly illustrated on Friday, as the 2018 Shaky Knees Music Festival kicked off. It was one of the greatest—maybe THE absolute best—slates of music in the festival’s history, full of Paste favorites, musical legends and up-and-comers. Seriously, where else do you get to see Jack White, David Byrne, Courtney Barnett, Jimmy Eat World, Waxahatchee, Fleet Foxes, Japandroids and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, all in one day? And that’s not even including all of the other great acts, from Lillie Mae to Amasa Hines, Ezra Furman and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. If ever there was a daily lineup tailor made for Paste, this was the one.
So with that said, here’s some of our favorite acts from Shaky Knees, Day 1.
Along with Amasa Hines, young country sensation Lillie Mae had the unenviable task of curtain-jerking the Friday of Shaky Knees with a noon set—never a time when many listeners have yet made their way into the park. The crowd, then, was understandably sparse, but they fully recognize the musical talents of Lillie Mae Rische, born into a musical family and rising to prominence as a member of Jack White’s backing band. Friday, she performed a blistering set of rollicking country tunes on the same big stage where White would set up shop nine hours later, showing off one of the aspects that sets her compositions apart from other artists tagged as country’s next big thing—sheer musical virtuosity. Mae’s songs are a perfect balancing act between her lilting, youthful voice—which actually displayed much more power on Friday than we’ve heard on her studio recordings—and the profound talents of her backing band, who get extended chances to shine on seemingly every track. Mae is the type of singer who fronts a band but doesn’t “dominate” it, sharing the spotlight with every other member in a way that seems wholly organic and unplanned. Even during standout tracks such as “Wash Me Clean” and “To Go Wrong,” Mae seems cognizant that she’s building a band, rather than simply a solo career. —Jim Vorel
The most memorable performers often try to make the stage itself feel different and new, either with light shows, backdrops, props or other designs to transform that standard platform into something new. But there are some things that are almost always present: The drum kit in the back. The walls of amplifiers. The mic stands and cables snaking their way across the stage. Set lists taped to floors. So when David Byrne appeared on a stage that was completely empty save for a simple table, chair and model brain, it was a signal we were in for something different. Barefoot, in a dapper grey suit, he began the set singing about information passing through neurons in the opener “Here,” as he was slowly joined first by a pair of dancers and back-up singers and, eventually, the rest of his dozen-strong troupe, all dressed alike, not a shoe to be found. With no drum kit rooted in place, six mobile drummers replicated the complex polyrhythms of a set list that ranges from Talking Heads classics (“This Must Be the Place,” “Burning Down the House”) to more recent songs and his co-write with Fatboy Slim, “Toe Jam.” The choreography on stage was simple and exaggerated—dramatic poses and casual movements. At points, the whole band just rushed from one side of the stage to the other or pretended to fall asleep on the ground. But it was also full of an infectious joy, like all self-consciousness should be erased from the premises. Twice, Byrne pulled up his pant leg to show a little ankle. And even with all the horns processed through a keyboard and the drums split into six parts, the music was surprisingly faithful to the originals. The look was completely different, but the music is just as tight, whimsical and groovy. Byrne no longer spasms at the mic, but “Letting the Days Go By” could have been the Stop Making Sense version, though this time he prowled the front of the stage like a TV evangelist. The hour-long set ended with Janelle Monae’s righteously angry protest song, “Hell You Talmbout,” with Byrne and his band chanting the names of police brutality victims: Walter Scott, Jerame Reid, Philip White, say his name. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, won’t you say his name? Freddie Gray, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, say her name. Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Emmett Till, Tommy Yancy, Jordan Baker, Amadou Diallo, say his name. It was a powerful finish to the best set of the day. —Josh Jackson
Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett’s punk leanings don’t always come through her recorded music like they do her live shows. Dressed in all black and backed by a simple line-up of guitar, bass and drums, there was no mistaking those tendencies at Shaky Knees. Her lyrics are often aptly referred to as conversational, but while that tag usually means tedious, there’s a cleverness to her casual wordplay; she just seems like someone you’d love to have a conversation with. In recently released opener “City Looks Pretty,” she observed, “Friends treat you like a stranger, and strangers treat you like their best friend.” Or in the garage-y, almost sludge-y “Small Poppies”: “I used to hate myself, but now I think I’m alright.” The melodies of “An Illustration of Loneliness” and “Nameless, Faceless” seemed bouncy in comparison, but even in the latter song, bass and fuzzy guitar serve an all-out attack as she takes down haters and misogynists. Sycophants got theirs, too, in “Pedestrian at Best.” She referred to the second half of her set as the “soft-rock” portion of the show, but the guitar still crunched in “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser.” “Depreston” was really the only slow song in the set and one of my favorites she’s written. But closer “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” seemed like the crowd’s favorite. If there were still such things as “hits” in her corner of the music world, her set was full of them. And they all hit hard. —Josh Jackson
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
There were a lot of little coincidences on Shaky Knees’ Peachtree Stage throughout Friday. First it was Lillie Mae, taking to the stage hours before her musical patron Jack White. Then it was Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, taking to the same stage an hour or two before fellow Melbourne-ian Courtney Barnett. Their surfy, rhythm-heavy guitar rock was well received by the Shaky crowd, even if it was occasionally more energetic than it was in tune. Certain riffs called mental associations to the likes of Modern English and “I’ll Stop the World to Melt With You,” while I could have sworn I also heard the opening riff to “Don’t Fear the Reaper” later on. The band tried out a bevy of new material from their upcoming full-length debut Hope Downs, most of it landing well, with flourishes of frenetic, almost psychedelic guitar exuberance. Still, the highlight was likely either lead single “The French Press” from the group’s second EP of the same name, or “Fountain of Good Fortune,” a biting critique of middle-class, conservative Australia and its opposition to the future. RBCF can seem like a band just here to jam, but some of the songs have a very intriguing sentiment. —Jim Vorel
This Long Beach, Calif. outfit delivered one of Shaky Day One’s most energetic performances, a rowdy Southern rock display overflowing with righteous noise. Lead singer Jay Buchanan prowled the Piedmont stage in bare feet, commanding the sun-baked crowd while unleashing vocals a nearby audience member accurately called “killer.” The hot-rod rockers, including guitarist Scott Holiday, bassist Dave Beste and drummer Mike Miley, along with touring keyboardist Todd Ögren-Brooks, were almost too enthusiastic, overdriving their songs at times. But their raw, swaggering ardor was put to bang-up use on tracks like the explosive “Open My Eyes,” highlighted by Buchanan’s howls and Holiday’s filthy riffs. Buchanan concluded their set by thanking Shaky Knees for showcasing “real rock ‘n’ roll,” which we can only imagine is what Rival Sons will deliver on their next album, which they’re recording in Nashville with none other than Grammy-winning super-producer Dave Cobb and releasing this year. —Scott Russell
Katie Crutchfield and company’s 4 p.m. set was an oasis in more ways than one. Friday was a scorcher; it was still 86 degrees in the shade of the covered Ponce de Leon stage, as Katie read from an onstage thermometer, and her twin sister Allison Crutchfield took the stage in bright yellow shades (and a Bedouine shirt). Waxahatchee fought the heat, if only figuratively: Katie and her band leaned on their acclaimed 2017 record Out in the Storm, their music crashing, then receding, like waves on a beach. Katie’s full-throated, emotive vocals invited us in as the band opened with “Recite Remorse,” after which the Crutchfields grabbed their guitars and took off, spinning up pop-punk nirvana with “Silver” and “Poison.” Their set ran the gamut from earnest and introspective acoustic tunes (“8 Ball,” “A Little More”) to dynamic, distorted rockers (“Coast to Coast,” “No Question”). Waxahatchee gave a stand-out showing at their first Shaky Knees, making space for emotional reflection in an environment where noise often drowns out nuance. —Scott Russell
The War and Treaty
We happened to catch the tail end of this set from gospel/soul/blues duo The War and Treaty, composed of husband and wife Michael and Tanya Trotter. Michael Trotter’s story is an interesting one, as he first honed his songwriting abilities while serving as a soldier in Iraq, but most attendees to Shaky Knees will simply remember his voice, and that of his wife. These guys’ vocals were truly booming—the kind of performance where you’re perhaps better off sitting 1,000 yards away with the band just barely in sight, for the sake of your eardrums. Their set rolled through a plethora of sweaty Southern soul and gospel numbers, before seguing into electrified Chicago blues, backed with some pretty neat organ work. You certainly wouldn’t accuse them of holding back in the slightest, that’s for sure. —Jim Vorel
Fleet Foxes’ 8 p.m. set overlapping with Japandroids’ made for Day One’s most brutal scheduling conflict, but listeners who opted for the former were rewarded by the reliably lovely expertise of arguably the premier act in indie folk today. Robin Pecknold and his band showed themselves to be a well-oiled musical machine right from the start of their dusk Piedmont stage showing, with only the occasional screech of mic feedback (and, for some reason, numerous car alarms from a nearby automaker sponsor’s display) breaking their baroque and abundantly melodic spell. The band moved quickly and efficiently through their ample catalog, rather than getting lost in reveries, with a genial Pecknold thanking the crowd after more songs than not. Fleet Foxes were an outlier of a Shaky Knees act, dynamic but not distorted; Pecknold’s voice is impeccable as porcelain, and his supporting cast built around it effortlessly. Though the band’s gorgeous and intricate performance may have been lost on much of the worn-out crowd (quite a few of whom left early to get situated for Day One headliner Jack White), Fleet Foxes’ rendition of Crack-Up lead single “Third Of May/Odaigahara” (just one day late!), during which the sun finally dipped behind the horizon, was one of the festival’s first day’s most sublime moments. —Scott Russell
They say you have to know the rules before you can break them, and it’s safe to say that Jack White knows his way around the school of rock by now. Perhaps that’s why he got away with opening his Shaky Day One-closing set with a guitar solo, or ending each of his first four songs with those quickening instrumental crashes that typically signal the end of one’s set. As White must realize, listeners know, within reason, exactly what they’re in for when he takes the stage—even across his creative output’s various iterations, including The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and his solo work, the basic building blocks are the same, which is why fans who stuck around for White’s two-part headlining set could not possibly have been disappointed. The rock ‘n’ roll maestro and his four-piece backing band made a mountain of sound, as promised, with White effortlessly reeling off one killer riff after another while deploying rippers from all across his discography, including everything from “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “Steady, As She Goes” to a set-closing “Seven Nation Army.” And White’s Boarding House Reach material showed quite well, including frenetic set opener “Over and Over and Over” and a shrieky, jammed-out take on “Corporation,” although his bizarre anti-pet ownership song “Why Walk A Dog?” undid a good bit of that early momentum … that is, until he soloed all over it. Though White’s new album has divided listeners, one thing is abundantly clear: He’s earned the right to do things his own way. —Scott Russell
Watching Ezra Furman perform live is a real experience. Wearing a floral red dress and matching lipstick, Furman was backed by his band, The Visions, wearing pure white. Right off the bat you knew you were in for a real treat just from a visual standpoint. He’s an incredibly explosive presence on stage, and it’s obvious that he’s putting his heart and soul into every single song. Furman makes you feel vulnerable. His stage presence is emotional, it’s endearing, it’s charismatic. And of course, it’s entirely dance-worthy. Don’t miss out on Ezra Furman if he plays near you sometime soon. —Annie Black
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