Life is full of tough decisions. Where do you go to college? What job offer do you accept? Do you decline both and move back home because your mom makes better sandwiches than anyone alive? Do you marry this girl/guy? ARE YOU THROWING YOUR LIFE AWAY IF YOU DO MARRY HIM/HER?!? What kind of burrito should you get at lunch becauseyoulovethebarbacoabutreallyyoufeellikeyoushouldbranchoutbutthenagainyoulovethebarbacoa?
Well, not to be the bearer of bad news, but if you’re in Atlanta this weekend it’s not going to get any easier. Sure, you might think that Shaky Knees Music Festival is a blessing from the indie gods (and it is). And you might be amazed at how a second-year festival could amass the sort of depth of talent and taste that Shaky Knees has in its newest installment. And you might think that by purchasing a ticket that the universe will treat you as the benevolent patron of the arts that you are; but no good deed goes unpunished. It’s a dog-eat-dog-eat-music-lover world out there y’all, and it’s time to strap up.
Luckily for you, very-much-appreciated-reader, I’m here to make most of the tough decisions for you… At least as it relates to Shaky Knees. Just watch Good Will Hunting about that girl problem of yours; it usually works for me.
One more quick disclaimer… While I’m calling these tough decisions, you cannot go wrong by seeing any of these bands this weekend. In fact, you’d be very hard pressed not to walk away from Atlantic Station on Sunday night anything other than totally satisfied (unless of course it rains four inches again). The lineup is that deep and that good.
So with no disrespect intended, and at the risk of pissing off half of the lineup and jeopardizing any chances I have at being best friends with and rhythm tambourine-ist (I could never handle lead) for many of these outstanding artists… Here it is, your guide, their gauntlet.
FRIDAY – MAY 9
Tough Decision #1: Mutual Benefit vs. American Aquarium, 12:45pm
I told you this wouldn’t be easy, and here we are right off of the bat.
Mutual Benefit is one of the more unique artists at Shaky Knees this year, which I mean entirely as a compliment. Jordan Lee, the man behind the madness, recently released his debut album Love’s Crushing Diamond, to widespread critical acclaim. Mutual Benefit, which can range from Lee to a whole ensemble, trades in its own unique brand of atmospheric, ethereal pop in which listening is as much an exercise as an experience.
That being said, my wholly unqualified, subjective advice is that you trade in the dream-pop sway for a little bit rowdier brand of head-bobbing and check out Raleigh’s own American Aquarium. Fresh off their newest album Burn.Flicker.Die (recorded in Muscle Shoals and produced by Jason Isbell, so you know it’s good), American Aquarium combine southern rock, blues, and Americana about as well as I’ve heard it done. Not unlike their predecessors Drive-By Truckers (or Isbell for that matter), the band specializes in small town storytelling built on thoughtful lyrics, perfectly balanced instrumentation, and what just seems to be a knack for the kind of rock and roll that makes you feel something one line at a time. Which is to say, the best kind of rock and roll.
JUDGMENT: American Aquarium
Confidence Level: 75%
Tough Decision #2: Wild Belle v. The Whigs, 2:15pm
I’ve gotta go with the “hometown” pick here. While there’s no doubt that Wild Belle (much like Mutual Benefit before them) offer one of the coolest sounds at Shaky Knees, this is an outdoor music festival built for bands, and The Whigs, hailing from nearby Athens, Georgia are a band. A three-piece power trio, The Whigs decided to record their last album live, and in doing so succeeding in capturing the extremely narrow middle ground between rawness and precision. The resulting album, Modern Creation, is a hell of a ride, and I’ve no reason to expect anything less from the band during their Friday afternoon set.
All of this of course is not meant to take anything away from the awesome, incredibly diverse sound of Wild Belle, who, if they show up with a full horn section or something equally as awesome are really going to make me look all kinds of foolish. Side note: The Whigs are playing a late night set at the Earl on Saturday at 12:30, so maybe just see both?
JUDGMENT: The Whigs
Confidence Level: 25%
Tough Decision #3: Band of Skulls v. Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, 4:00pm
No disrespect… Actually I’ve got to stop saying that. Just. Do. Not. Miss. Charles. Bradley. Band of Skulls are a great band, one worth seeing, and the odds are you know their hit single “I Know What I Am.” They are a holy rock and roll terror cut from the cloth of the Black Keys but rubbed full of the Queen’s blessed dirt and grit. But Charles Bradley is a force of nature unto himself.
Without delving into his outrageously difficult upbringing, his bouncing all over America for decades on end, or the incredibly inspiring nature of a hard-luck kid who grew up imitating James Brown with a broomstick microphone hitting it big, the 65 year old Bradley has fully taken on the mantle of the “new” Godfather of Soul. Every song is a journey through an undeniably arduous life, but I’ll be damned if Bradley’s mix of gospel, soul, and pouring his heart out past the point of what could reasonably be considered healthy is anything but extraordinary.
JUDGMENT: Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires
Confidence Level: 95%
Tough Decision #4: Spoon v. The Gaslight Anthem
This is a total fanboy pick on my part, based solely on my own experiences and an almost total disregard for journalistic integrity (hey, it’s the internet). But I have seen The Gaslight Anthem multiple times and those Jersey boys THROW DOWN.
Spoon of course is a very well-established, well-respected band, and they’ve been doing their thing to a lot of critical acclaim and cultural love since the mid 90’s. Their song “The Underdog” is everything I’ve ever wanted. I mean, Metacritic even listed them as the top overall artist of the 2000s. So yes, they’re awesome. And if my roommate—the one with the framed Spoon poster outside his door—was writing this, we’d be going completely the other way.
But he’s not. I am. And I’m a sucker for driving, anthemic, nostalgia-laden, Boss-influenced rock, and that’s exactly what The Gaslight Anthem bring to the table. Originally started as a punk-ish band, TGA has evolved over the course of the last few years into a powerhouse capable of delivering sweating, screaming, and redeeming live performances. Both The ’59 Sound and American Slang were top-notch albums, and for those of us millennials who like to hear other millennials sing about old Cadillacs and transistor radios, it doesn’t get much better.
Another side note: Spoon plays a late night set at 12:30am, Saturday, at Centerstage, thus making this decision even easier for me. Go see them!
JUDGMENT: The Gaslight Anthem
Confidence Level: 85%
SATURDAY – MAY 10
Tough Decision #5: Tokyo Police Club v. The Districts, 3:00pm
Hailing from the Great White Northern Kingdom of His Highness Aubrey Drake Graham, Tokyo Police Club is the indie Energizer bunny. Upbeat and accelerated, I’ve no doubt that they’ll start one of the livelier dance parties this weekend.
However, Americana happens to be my jam, and the Districts’ rootsy blend of blues, rock, and folk really does it for me. You might be familiar with the on-the-slow-side “Funeral Beds” but the mid-tempo tracks are where they really seem to thrive. Here’s hoping they bust out “Rocking Chair” on Saturday.
This decision is really a toss-up. If you wanna dance, go to Tokyo Police Club. If you wanna do that thing that some of us white folk do and shake your head at the ground whilst swaying back and forth, come see The Districts.
JUDGMENT: The Districts
Confidence Level: 40%
SUNDAY – MAY 11
Tough Decision #6: Jason Isbell v. Blitzen Trapper
I probably shouldn’t call this a tough decision, because in my mind it’s not. This is only because I have seen Blitzen Trapper once (they’re awesome, by the way), but I have yet to see Jason Isbell.
I’m somewhat certain that Jason Isbell has been sent to Earth by an extremely advanced alien culture to teach everyone how to write songs again. Isbell has been churning out classics ever since he fell into Drive-By Truckers over ten years ago, but his newest offering Southeastern solidifies his status as a prodigiously gifted solo artist. Tracks like “Elephant,” “Stockholm,” and “Flying Over Water” are simply undeniably great, and when you add them to the back catalog of “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” from his time with DBT, you’ve got an absolute beast on your hands. I’m hoping the man plays for eight hours.
JUDGMENT: Jason MF’n Isbell
Confidence Level: 79.4%
Tough Decision #7: Trampled by Turtles v. The Hold Steady
I really don’t know what to do here, and I’m afraid that I may not be of much help to any of you in making this choice. I suppose it’s a matter of preference (aren’t they all?), unless of course you just really like both of these bands, as I happen to do. Sadly, we don’t get the set lists ahead of time, which is really the only way I could potentially make a firm decision… The Hold Steady have a new album out, and I think it’s pretty damn good, so… Yeah, that’s all I’ve got on this coinflip. Godspeed.
JUDGMENT: The Hold Steady?
Confidence Level: < 1%
Can’t Miss Shows
The Replacements (Saturday, 8:00pm, Piedmont Stage)
Holy shit. There’s no Sugar Shane Falco here. If you’re somehow unaware, the Replacements are a legendary post-punk rock band from Minneapolis who in many ways bridged the gap between Lou Reed and the Ramones and the grunge movement and so on and so forth. Having broken up over twenty years ago, original members Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are back on a tour of the festival circuit, despite initially only committing to Riot Fest last summer. They’re heading into Shaky Knees fresh off a Coachella performance, and I couldn’t be more excited. I mean, who doesn’t love a band that records a song called “Gary’s Got a Boner”?
Benjamin Booker (Sunday, 12:45pm, Piedmont Stage)
The man only has one song on Spotify, isn’t due out for an album for another few months at least, and apparently isn’t doing much press at Shaky. That being said, it’s a really good song. Get there early on Sunday just in case. You’ll want to say you were there when Benjamin Booker blew up.
Langhorne Slim (Sunday, 2:15pm, Piedmont Stage)
I have neither the time nor the room on the page to tell you all of the reasons that you should go see Langhorne Slim and The Law. Let me just say this: if you go to his Sunday set, I’ll bet you five whole American dollars that it’s the best set you see this weekend. You can meet me at the media tent to pay me afterwards. You can also check out our October interview with the man himself here.
The Weeks (Sunday, 3:00pm, Boulevard Stage)
Despite going up against Deer Tick on Sunday, I’ve got this in the “Can’t Miss” section rather than the “Tough Decisions” one based purely off of the strength of their latest album Dear Bo Jackson. The Mississippi roots rock outfit will burn the Boulevard Stage to the ground. It should be quite a sight.
So there you have it. Your not-at-all definitive guide to Shaky Knees Music Festival this weekend. For more information, feel free to check out their website here, download their app (surprisingly good), and consult the official timeline. Above all else, have fun, rock out, don’t be a shithead, don’t tape a whole set with your iPhone, and appreciate how fortunate our city is to have a feather like Shaky Knees added to its proverbial cap.
Editor’s Comment: You can follow Robert throughout the weekend on Twitter @R_Sills for updates, attempts at witticisms, and backstage content. Please don’t judge him too harshly, he’s a Buckeye; they don’t know any better.