Shaky Knees Festival 2014: Fans brave the heat for Alabama Shakes, Violent Femmes


"I'm not an eloquent speaker, so it's hard when you have thousands of people out there," Brittany Howard, the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, told the crowd during the band's headlining spot on the last day of the Shaky Knees Music Festival. "But you know what? I feel all right."

With a voice like Howard's, it'd be hard not to feel anything less than sublime, even if public speaking isn't her forte. The dead vocal ringer for Janis Joplin and her group served as the perfect cap for a weekend that served up biblical-like weather (heavy rain on Friday and Saturday and Death Valley-intense heat on Sunday), a decades-in-the-making reunion (The Replacements, who played Saturday), a post-downpour dance party (Modest Mouse, who played Saturday) and some breakout bands who found new audiences (The Lone Bellow, Lord Huron, San Fermin).

The Alabama Shakes might have been a surprising choice for a headliner to some (some rumors had plans for Beck to serve as the Sunday headliner, falling through right before the lineup was announced). True, the group only has one album (2012's "Boys & Girls"), but what an album it is, and with a frontwoman like Howard showcasing her staggering vocal chops, it would have been hard for even the naysayers to fault the selection. The band powered through songs from their album, including the ubiquitous hit "Hold On," and a few new songs that dangled the promise of a new album sometime soon.

The earlier heat might have drained the energy out of some festivalgoers, but as the temperatures cooled and the realization that the weekend was almost over set in, many got their second wind and crooned along with Howard.

More musical highlights:

San Fermin: A band on the verge of breaking out, San Fermin features a big sound complete with horns, a sax, strings and the haunting voice of newly-added vocalist Charlene Kaye. Look for them to get more attention in the next year.

Mason Jennings:  A singer-songwriter in the vein of Bob Dylan (Jennings sang two Dylan songs for the film "I'm Not There"), Jennings displayed his versatility with the silly "Your New Man" and the plaintive "Jackson Square," on which he showed off some nice harmonica skills.

Deer Tick:  Frontman John McCauley able led the band on the festival's main stage, cranking out tunes like "The Dream's In the Ditch" and the new "Shi**y Music Festival" (McCauley assured the Shaky Knees crowd the song wasn't about them. Phew!). McCauley also brought new wife Vanessa "A Thousand Miles" Carlton up on stage for a sweet duet, a highlight in an already-entertaining set.

Blitzen Trapper:  The folky country outfit rocked hard in the height of the heat with "Fletcher" and "Calling," and an excellent cover of Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way."

Jason Isbell:  The former Drive-By Truckers member did a stand-up job as a solo act -- his voice was a revelation on his lovely, sad tunes including "Cover Me Up" and "Traveling Alone." Musicians don't come anymore polite than Isbell -- he shouted out some other acts playing the fest, and ended with, "I'm awful glad I got to play some music for you folks." It was a treat for those who caught the set.

The Hold Steady: "It would have been so easy to sit at home on your couch," lead singer Craig Finn told the crowd halfway through the band's set. "But you came out to see some rock n' roll. It'll get more and more important that we get together and do things like this. Finn delivered the dense lyrics of the Hold Steady's rock oeuvre -- including "Stuck Between Stations", "Spinners" and "Constructive Summer" -- with a smile plastered on his face for the entirety of the set, looking giddy when Deer Tick lead singer John McCauley joined in on one song, and happily referenced all the other bands playing the festival, shouting out the Violent Femmes as the first band he ever saw play in a club and The Replacements as his favorite band of all time. It was hard not to get bitten by Finn's happiness bug during the band's rocking, non-stop set.

Local Natives:  The indie-rock buzz band, touring behind their second album, "Hummingbird," delivered the kooky beats and pretty harmonies they're known for on a pounding, relentless version of their hit "Sun Hands" and a surprisingly pleasant Johnny Cash tune, "Out Among the Stars" that they truly made their own.

Violent Femmes:  The alt-rock vets seemed to play an awful lot of B-sides during the fist half of their set, but then all became clear: They were playing their 1983 self-titled album in its entirety, from hits "Add It Up" and "Blister In the Sun" to the more obscure "To the Kill" and "Confessions." They still sound good considering they've been knocking around for the better part of three decades, and by the time they ended with a raucous version of "American Music," they made it clear they still have a little juice left in 'em.

At the end of the long weekend, in spite of the weather and some minor audio snafus, Shaky Knees proved to come off without much of a hitch. The venue change was inspired, although organizers might think about providing more spots for festivalgoers to take shelter from the sun, and the lack of street parking was a bit frustrating. But the lineup, the most important part of any music festival, was pretty stellar. We're looking forward to seeing if they can top it next year.

What did you think of this year's Shaky Knees Festival? What do you think was better about this year, and what would you change for next year?