Shaky Knees Festival 2014: Rain, big names highlight Day 1


In its second year, Shaky Knees Festival has made some changes, most notably adding an extra day of music and changing venues, from Masquerade Music Park to Atlantic Station. But one thing remained the same: Rain, and lots of it. The skies opened up at around 5:30 p.m., just as experimental rockers Man Man and the Boston Celtic punk rock outfit the Dropkick Murphys were halfway through their sets.

It's hard to remember a major outdoor festival in Atlanta over the past couple of years that hasn't been plagued by at least one day of heavy rain (seriously, can we enjoy one music weekend without getting drenched? Dare to dream), so this time many festival-goers came prepared with ponchos, but even the ones in jeans and sneakers were saved by Atlantic Station's pavement -- there were a couple of giant puddles, but no mud in sight, sparing fans becoming the Mud People they turned into at last year's fest before things finally let up around 8 p.m., just in time for Spoon and The Gaslight Anthem to start their respective sets.

But the lack of mud wasn't the only benefit to the venue change.

Last year's event was set up well, but there was some slight bleeding of sound for acts that played simultaneously on two different stages. The set up this year eliminates that problem, but also the stages in pairs so fans could easily catch the end of one band's set while waiting for the next band to start. It was a surprisingly well thought-out setup after some trepidation about attending a major music festival next to an outdoor shopping center (though the event is set far enough away from the main shopping area that the only reminder you're there is a glimpse of the Dillard's sign on the side of one building).

As for the music, the rain didn't seem to put a damper on any band's set, and in fact seemed to electrify some -- "Atlanta, one, weather zero!" Airborne Toxic Event lead singer Mikel Jollett screamed, getting a roar from the crowd during the downpour.

Some musical highlights:

Charles Bradley:  If you decided to come to the fest late on Friday for the "big" names -- you missed out. It's hard not to put it bluntly, because Charles Bradley was one of the highlights of the day. The 65-year-old soul and funk singer brought a level of energy to the stage some acts half his age could only wish for. Bradley is heavily influenced by James Brown (he actually briefly worked as a James Brown impersonator), and his set often felt like the second coming of Brown, complete with a strong backing band (his keyboardist also served as his hypeman -- "He's known across the land as a victim of love, the doctor of love, and, to a special few, the Cassanova of love," he introduced Bradley), costume changes, gyrating hips and Kung Fu kicks, but most importantly, that voice -- oh, that voice. It paired perfectly with his songs of love and longing, including "The World" and "Confusion." "You put me on this stage, and I'm here to give you a show," Bradley said about halfway through the set -- and he did indeed. Seriously, if you missed it, make sure to check him out if he comes through town again.

Man Man:  The band is known for their crazy costumes and Carnival funhouse vibe, and they didn't disappoint, even with the rain moving in toward the end of their set. Lead singer Honus Honus donned a sparkly red poncho over the skeleton-print suit the rest of the band was wearing, and later changed into a white fur coat, followed by a Sgt. Pepper-style coat and neon-colored mask. All the theatrics worked well with the group's off-kilter music, including the songs "Top Drawer" and "Mister Jung Stuffed." They kept the high energy up even after the rain started.

Dropkick Murphys:  Known to lesser fans as the band that did that song from the movie "The Departed," the Boston rockers did indeed play "I'm Shipping Up to Boston," but it was only one of many tunes that allowed the band to display their tight playing. They closed things out with "Out of Our Heads," "Rose Tattoo," "Shipping Out" and a fun cover of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business."

The Airborne Toxic Event:  The rain was in full effect when Airborne took the stage, but you wouldn't know it by the screams of the crowd and the energy of the band. They sped through favorites including "Sometime Around Midnight" and a jangly version of The Crickets' "I Fought the Law." Anna Bulbrook's strings in particular played out to lovely effect against the gloomy backdrop.

Spoon:  The rock stalwarts kept the focus mostly on songs from the albums "Kill the Moonlight," "Gimme Fiction" and their most recent, 2010's "Transference." "The Way We Get By" turned into a giant singalong, and lead singer Britt Daniel played drums briefly with drummer Jim Eno on "The Ghost of You Lingers," giving the set some levity and the fans a chance to shake off their ponchos and dance.

The National:  The headliners played a solid 90-minute set, with Matt Berninger's rich baritone delivering on "Bloodbuzz Ohio," live favorite "About Today" and "Abel," on which they proved to be surprisingly competent rockers. The large space could have swallowed them up, but they held their own on the big stage and cranked out favorites made for singing along to (sometimes a little too built for singalongs -- where I was standing, Berninger was often drowned out by the voices of overenthusiastic fans).

All in all, it was a solid night of music in spite of the questionable weather. Saturday brings the promise of another 20 bands including Apache Relay, Tokyo Police Club, Dawes, Gregory Alan Isakov (who was plugged by The Gaslight Anthem during their set), Jenny Lewis and The Replacements. See the full lineup here and check out a guide for everything you need to know for the rest of the weekend here.