The 9 Best Acts We Saw at Shaky Knees 2023

Music Lists Shaky Knees
The 9 Best Acts We Saw at Shaky Knees 2023

Based in Paste’s hometown of Atlanta, Shaky Knees has long been one of our favorite festivals, even if this year’s lineup didn’t excite everyone. But despite a little drizzle, the weekend featured some wonderful music, and we captured the best of it in photos and words. Here, in alphabetical order, are our nine favorite acts from the 2023 Shaky Knees Music Festival.

Digable Planets

It’s been 30 years since jazz rap trio Digable Planets released Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space), and yet, the record’s Afrofuturistic musings on communalism remain as timeless as ever. The smell of nickel bags and and the slick beam of live saxophone punctuated Friday’s intermittent drizzle as MCs Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, and Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Viera took to the stage, the cruising funk of “Slowes’ Comb/The May 4th Movement Starring Doodlebug” arriving just a day late (May 5th) of being particularly opportune. With the exception of this year’s Cypress Hill and last-minute Killer Mike placements, the Brooklyn three-piece is a refreshing billing for an alternative festival that —despite being based in the hip-hop capital of the world— often veers pop-rock at the expense of markedly considering the inclusion of alternative hip-hop acts. As the set goes on, stupid grins and excited glances peer out of ponchos to echo back sentiments of mutual aid and breezy portraits of New York summers, and when Ladybug Mecca drops the coy, “Remember this?” line of “Escapism (Get Free)” to the satisfying reprise of the “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” bassline, it’s rhetorical: of course we remember this. —Lindsay Thomaston

The next-best thing to watching an Athens band in Athens is watching an Athens band in Atlanta. Futurebirds got their start in the neighboring college town/band breeding ground, but their 4:30 Saturday set still felt like a hometown show. The ’birds have been migrating across the Southeast and beyond with their stellar live show for the better part of a decade, but it seems like bookers beyond college towns and jam festivals are only just start starting to take notice. We’ll forgive them for being so tardy to the party. Founding members Carter King, Daniel Womack, Thomas Johnson and Brannen Mile all seamlessly swap between between singing duties, while somehow maintaining the exact same grungy but melodic tone. And the joy on their faces while playing before a crowd of their neighbors was undeniable, making for an even more joyous crowd. —Ellen Johnson

Future Islands

It takes a special kind of vocalist to make a mainstage feel intimate, and Sam Herring of Future Islands has that rare and remarkable grip. Watching Herring perform is something like seeing a meticulously readied opera, but also like sitting cross-legged on the floor while a friend does a nervous first playthrough of a song they’ve just written: you get a sense that the emotion is as raw as yesterday, but that the approach has been seasoned with years of disciplined intent. On “Ran,” Herring’s voice oscillates between tender staccato and visceral desperation, his urgent pace working up a sweat completely separate from the Georgia heat that glistens over the audience, who watch transfixed, their eyebrows contorting to mirror Herring’s. Judging by the number of hands I see clutched to chests, I’m not the only one nursing pangs of the existential. —Lindsay Thomaston

Killer Mike

Atlanta rockers Manchester Orchestra sadly had to pull out of this year’s Shaky Knees because of health concerns, leaving a big gap in Friday’s festivities. And while that gap was still felt, Shaky Knees found another hometown artist to fill in. Killer Mike answered the call and, even though Run The Jewels just recently played the fest in 2021, put on a one-of-kind high-energy show. It should come as no surprise that a Killer Mike set in Atlanta proved to be exciting, but the rapper’s long list of famous friends made it extra great when Big Boi surprised the crowd midway through the hour. The crowd thinned in the last 15 minutes as Greta Van Fleet took the main stage, but that didn’t stop the pair of Atlanta legends from working the Piedmont stage. Killer Mike announced a new solo project and told a few inspirational, ATL-centric anecdotes, and it’s moments like those that make Shaky Knees not just a great Atlanta festival or a great rock festival, but a great festival. Period. —Ellen Johnson

Matt Maltese
British singer/songwriter Matt Maltese brought a unique coziness to this year’s Shaky Knees. In his first-ever U.S. festival appearance, Maltese serenaded the crowd from a piano underneath a gray, drizzling sky, charming with selections from his four albums, including the newly released Driving Just to Drive. Between the difficult midday time slot, a markedly quieter sound compared to the rest of the lineup and a backing band that he’d just met two days prior to this performance, the keyboard-plunking crooner faced a few challenges. However, Maltese managed to cultivate a coffeehouse-like intimacy with droll pop nocturnes like the absurdly self-degrading “Curl Up & Die,” the love-triangle-themed “Like a Fish” and the personified torment of “Hello Black Dog.” —Lizzie Manno


If the performance can’t be ironically memed into a this is the future liberals want bit, what’s the point? Long before Kim Petras’ Slut Pop, there was Peaches, and Shaky Knees guests turned out to the Criminal Records stage en masse to pay homage to the sex-positive dance punk that nurtured the club kid nights and queer realizations of their youth. Face painted hot pink and blue like a John Waters Harlequin, the Canadian artist roused a steady stream of whoops and headbangs while sinking into splits and walking atop the crowd Iggy Pop-style to “AA XXX” and “Boys Wanna Be Her.” What else is in the teaches of Peaches? Apparently eight costume changes, including a Biblically accurate troll doll with Rapunzel-length pubes, assless chaps, and a leotard starkly emblazoned with the words “TRANS RIGHTS NOW”— the basic words of support I had hoped more artists at an alternative festival in the southeast might also have offered throughout the weekend. —Lindsay Thomaston

Sunflower Bean

The much-buzzed-about Brooklyn band Sunflower Bean have reinvented their sound with each release, and last year’s Headful of Sugar was perhaps their biggest leap yet. Sugar is a full-on classic rock ’n’ roll album, but their Saturday set at the shady Criminal Records stage—which frequently plays host to some of the greatest acts from the Shaky undercard—stopped at every step on their sonic journey. They thrashed to “Moment in the Sun,” but they also slowed things down for a few songs from their slightly pop record Twentytwo in Blue (including the title track “Twentytwo,” which remains one of the greatest songs ever written about that pivotal age). And Julia Cumming remains one of the most electric band leaders around. —Ellen Johnson


Hannah van Loon (who records as Tanukichan) and company provided some of the most tantalizing, chest-rumbling guitar tones of the festival as they opened the Piedmont stage on Sunday. Despite the thin crowd, the California band’s full-throttle dream-pop distortion and van Loon’s understated, icy and purposely muddied vocals were more-than-welcome sonic outliers at Central Park this past weekend. Tanukichan’s noisy yet spacious songcraft, marked by singed, quaking bass tones, thundered throughout the festival grounds, particularly with the heavy, danceable one-two punch of “Escape” and “Don’t Give Up” that opens her new album GIZMO. The beautifully soothing “Thin Air” was another highlight, with drummer Joe Lyle assuming the vocal duties of Enumclaw’s Aramis Johnson, who duets with van Loon on the recorded version. —Lizzie Manno

Water From Your Eyes

In stark contrast to the glut of straightforward rock bands, two sets stood out the most at the 2023 edition of Shaky Knees: Peaches and Water From Your Eyes. While Peaches deviated with a techno-pop sound and the help of numerous outfit changes, vagina-costumed backup dancers and such stage antics as microphone deepthroating, Brooklyn’s Water From Your Eyes strayed via the sheer left-field nature of their music. Calling upon disparate styles like math rock, industrial, dance music and even showtunes, the band definitely shook things up with their strident, unpredictable pop songs. In a live setting, their guitars sound even sharper, as Nate Amos and live member Al Nardo tagteamed and brought a brutal precision, especially on their new material, with the primitive ping-ponging of “True Life” and the contorting stop-starts of “Barley.” But even as their haywire melodies squealed and dance beats boomed on numbers like “Track Five” and “Break,” their delectable, earnest pop core shone through. Also akin to Peaches, who donned leotards with slogans like “Drag saves lives” and “Trans rights now” during their set, the band showed solidarity to Atlanta forest defenders, as vocalist Rachel Brown encouraged festival goers to educate themselves about the injustices surrounding Cop City—which was not insignificant, especially at a festival with corporate sponsors. —Lizzie Manno

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