A waterlogged dispatch from the Atlanta event’s debut, May 4 & 5, in which our intrepid correspondent takes in the likes of Hanni El Khatib, Jim James, Kurt Vile, Drive-By Truckers and others—and lives to write about it.
TEXT BY STEVE LABATE; DAY 1 PHOTOS BY JESS SMITH, DAY 2 PHOTOS BY MATTHEW SMITH
Rain. Grey skies and rain. Cold rain. Despite some great music, that’s what I’ll always remember about the inaugural Shaky Knees Festival. Standing in a 50-degree chill, sopping wet in a spontaneous swamp, squinting down past the brow of my windbreaker’s hoodie at rainbow swirls of splashing rain boots, my own non-waterproof sneakers like semi-frozen water balloons buried ankle-deep in mud.
In the midst—or should I say, mist—of all this, tattooed L.A. greaser Hanni El Khatib is onstage, tearing through a muscular, modern update on rollicking garage rock. I pull a tiny spiral pad from my pocket to jot down a few notes, and as soon as pen hits paper, the ink bleeds into indecipherable Rorschach blots. I try my smartphone, but tiny oceans are gathering on the suddenly unresponsive touchscreen, my fingers the useless paddles of a rowboat a thousand miles from shore. Even the mic for the voice recorder is flooded.
“Fuck it,” I think, slipping my phone into a ziploc bag in my backpack and tossing the waterlogged notepad into a trashcan. This is not the kind of weather you hope to find at any outdoor concert, let alone the first run of a major new indie-music festival. Still, the people are out in droves, many of them dancing through the downpour.
A few soggy hours and a plastic cup of moonshine later, a glorious racket is spilling from the speakers. It’s the band I wanted to see more than any other at the festival—The Orwells. Their unjaded teenaged onslaught loads a syringe full of trippy grunge squall, stabs it into the main artery of nascent rock & roll and slams down the plunger like it’s attached to a brick of TNT. This sound is on blessed display at Shaky Knees (just as it is in The Orwells’ jangling, fuzz-laden freakshow prom jam of a single “Halloween All Year” [watch: http://youtu.be/T6coOzqKGpw]).
After blasting through the unfortunately timely “Hallway Homicide” (“Cartridge is loaded, my trench coat unzips / My eyes on the clock and my hand on the grip” / Sawed-off, Zoloft, my cocktail is lit”), frontman Mario Cuomo’s pale face is red from screaming his fucking balls off. Eyes rolling, he prowls the stage frantically, slippin & trippin. He is every misunderstood kid I used to know in high school back in the ’90s. And it’s pretty damned cool to hear the masses give it up with such genuine enthusiasm for these would-be outcasts and underdogs.
The band closes its set with a blistering and brutal cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Cymbals explode. Broken notes are ripped from buzzing guitar strings. At the apex, Cuomo leaps from the towering stage into the slippery hands of the crowd, which somehow manages to hold his wiry body aloft, his wavy, Cobain-blond hair dangling like a smoky rock & roll halo.
To be honest, I was having a pretty shitty time until The Orwells hit the stage. But from their first riff, I didn’t think about how goddamned uncomfortable freezing drenched I was. It’s the kind of instant transmutation I’ve been lucky enough to experience countless times, the kind of electric moment that keeps me and all the other junkies and true believers out there in the rain for hours chasing the dragon—the chance to experience the elusive, healing power of good, simple rock & roll.
Later, as grey skies fade to black, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James stands in a dark, dapper suit in front of a half-rainbow pinwheel of neon carnival lights. It’s always impressive to see the effortless way James imbues his cavernous stadium rock with such fragile intimacy. His space-loungey set at Shaky Knees draws mainly from his laidback new solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, though he brings it all home with a trio of tunes from his supergroup side projects Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst, M. Ward & Mike Mogis) and New Multitudes (Jay Farrar, Will Johnson & Anders Parker)—the country-tinged “Right Place,” the anthemic “Losin Yo Head” and slow-burning, African-pop-indebted Woody Guthrie cover “Changing World.”
Satisfied, but having had enough waterboarding at the hands of mother nature, after James disappears backstage I slip out the exit and make my way home to a hot shower and dry bed.
When I awoke the next morning, my lungs felt like lead. For a moment I’m afraid I’ve come down with pneumonia. Some hot tea, a plate of biscuits and gravy and a couple bloody marys later, though, I’m good as new. It’s no small help that the sun is shining again. The festival grounds, of course, are still a disaster mess, the world’s largest ball of mud sprayed with a thousand fire hoses and sloshed and kicked all over Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward Park for hours on end. To combat this, the festival crew spread bail after bail of wheat straw overnight to prevent unsuspecting festivalgoers from disappearing forever into any Mariana Trench-deep pools of quicksand that might be lurking just below the surface.
Ambling across this precarious safety net, I stake out a sunny spot for Kurt Vile and the Violators. When the band begins to play, its liquid tunes wash over the crowd like a cascading waterfall. Vile is hunched over the mic, a resplendent wallflower rustling in the Georgia breeze. He and his cohorts don’t so much make music as bleed it out from a pinprick. They are slowly mutating lysergic journeyman for a new generation, but instead of soundtracking the chaotic, mindbending madness of the trip, they focus on the long, serene comedown, their performance like a 45-minute descent from some esoteric alternate reality.
Toward the end of the set, a lightning storm approaches, and the music turns as ominous as the sky. When it hits, the soundboard tent is nearly carried off by gusts of wind. I can’t tell if the flashes are from the stage lights or the storm—seems like a little bit of both.
By the time festival-circuit regulars the Drive-By Truckers hit the stage, the most violent weather has passed, the rain now coming in gentle spurts. It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the band, and to be honest, I’ve got mixed emotions. In the middle of the last decade, in the wake of their holy trinity of modern Southern-rock records—Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South—DBT was one of the most exciting bands on the scene, boldly reinvigorating (and reinventing) the genre while coming to terms with their complex regional roots via classic story songs and epic guitar riffs. Since then, they’ve certainly cranked out some solid records, but have never quite reached the peak of their heyday, and the last few shows I’ve caught have lacked the passion that once made their music so urgent and powerful.
Most bands with the Truckers’ longevity eventually fall into this rut, for various reasons. In their case, it probably has a lot to do with the constantly shifting lineup, one that has changed with nearly every record they’ve made. But the band that core members Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Brad Morgan show up with at Shaky Knees Fest is in fine form. New addition Matt Patton (The Dexateens) adds a burst of energy on bass, and relative newcomer Jay Gonzalez adds plenty of depth with his stinging licks and rambunctious piano thumping.
After 15 years of making records, the band has an impressively deep catalogue. Live, there’s an anticipation before each song, followed by an electric moment of recognition—when they launch into “Sink Hole,” “Lookout Mountain” or some other fan favorite—that jolts through the crowd, making temporary friends out of complete strangers as knowing glances are exchanged.
The rain falls soft and persistent through rock & roll ballads “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “The Living Bubba.” During the latter, Hood doles out a history lesson about the nearby Cabbage Town neighborhood(known in the ’90s as the “Rockabilly Ghetto”) and his old Atlanta Redneck Underground-scene inspirations Gregory Dean Smalley and Earl “Bubba” Maddox, the former having passed away years ago, and the latter just a few weeks before the festival. Before the song is over, Hood also pays tribute to recently fallen comrade, musician and DBT crew member Craig Lieske. Hood’s reverence for his friends and predecessors—for the obscure yet valiant local musicians who have influenced him is always poignant. He is simultaneously their torchbearer and evangelist, using his own band’s success to shine a light on their admirable under-the-radar contributions.
After DBT’s set, I’m momentarily aimless, trudging through the mud and mist, debating whether to stay or go. I can hear new acoustic heartthrobs The Lumineers in the shivering distance as they hokey-pokey their way through Creedence Clearwater’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” Yes, I have, thanks for asking—I’ve seen just about enough of it for one weekend. A few thousand stick it out to hear the festival’s final act, but I decide there’s no way I’m going to let the consumption sink its icy, congested claws into my lungs to watch a bunch of carefully coiffed goons in suspenders and pre-distressed fedoras hump their acoustic guitars for an hour. So out the Shaky Knees gate I slip for the last time, wandering the rain-slick Atlanta streets in the dark, pondering the weekend’s gauntlet; the wringer that just wrung me out. Standing on the corner, waiting alone for the hellish glow of the Don’t Walk sign to gleam heavenly white, a Cadillac barrels past, blasting me with a wall of water.
It’s like Andre 3000 said, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”