The 10 Best Sets We Saw at Shaky Knees 2021

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The 10 Best Sets We Saw at Shaky Knees 2021

Paste’s hometown, indie rock-centric festival is always a blur of sunshine, dust, booze, food, Braves merch and, above all, excellent music. That was especially true at this year’s fall edition of Shaky Knees, which took over Central Park in downtown Atlanta this past weekend, Oct. 22-24, for the first time in two long years. Thanks to the event’s COVID policies (which required proof of vaccination or a timely negative test result), it was relatively easy to leave pandemic anxiety at the door and just bask in having live shows back, knowing better than to take a single moment of music for granted while getting out and, as one Cults member put it, “enjoying the world again.”

Gratitude for all of the above radiated from audiences and artists alike. Some of this year’s acts were just concluding their first runs back on the road, while others hadn’t played a show in years—more than one artist said they were emotional to the point of tears, just being back onstage in front of fans. There were festival first-timers and living legends, surprise appearances and last-minute cancellations, singalongs and mosh pits … everything that makes live music so exciting, all dialed up to 11 after a layoff that felt like it would never end. That sense of collective catharsis made Shaky Knees a beautiful experience from end to end, even in its imperfections. We’re already looking forward to Shaky Knees 2022, but until then, here are 10 of our favorite sets from this year’s festival.

Arlo Parks

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Photo by Roger Ho

Arlo Parks’ Saturday afternoon Peachtree stage set, like her Mercury Prize-winning debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, was a lovely display of detailed, emotional songwriting and sweetly breezy instrumentation, offering depth for those interested in soaking up the poignant specifics of Parks’ lyrics, and immediacy via bright grooves that anyone in earshot could appreciate. The young singer/songwriter’s stage presence was delightful, from her contagious smile and carefree swaying to her soft-spoken banter and encouragement of her bandmates. “Now’s the bit where I just dance … nothing else to do,” she said with a laugh during an instrumental break on her debut single “Cola.” Beyond that song and the lightly hip-hop-tinged “Sophie,” Parks stuck to Collapsed in Sunbeams tracks, including the standout back-to-back of “Eugene,” which she described as “a song about falling in love with a friend” inspired by Radiohead’s In Rainbows, and “Black Dog,” a “very important song to [Parks]” she wrote for ”[her] best friend.” Shaky Knees Day 2 was Parks’ “first day in Atlanta,” she said, but there’s no chance it’ll be her last.

Bartees Strange

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Photo by Roger Ho

By the beginning of Day 3, on which Bartees Strange’s was the first proper set (after Songs for Kids), yours truly was—how to put this delicately—dragging ass, missing the first third of his early-afternoon Piedmont stage set as a result. Hearing “Mustang” from just outside the festival grounds instantly removed any lingering hitch from my giddy-up, and fortunately, Bartees Strange (born Bartees Cox) and his band didn’t need much time to make a special impression. Cox is a blast to watch, rolling on the stage while jamming during one track (“17,” which for now remains unreleased), then lying down as if asleep during another (Live Forever’s “Flagey God”), and gesturing expressively between guitar strums as he sang. His cover of previous Shaky Knees act The National’s “Lemonworld” killed with its restrained verses and crashing rock choruses, and though it appeared for a minute as if Cox’s set was being cut short around 1 p.m., he and his band soon returned to knock “Stone Meadows” and “Boomer” out of the park, with energy aplenty to get the crowd bouncing. This is just the beginning for Bartees Strange, a bonafide indie rock star whose 2020 momentum will only keep growing as he wins the world over, one audience at a time.

black midi

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Photo by Greg Noire

Geordie Greep and company’s inclusion on this list was, in retrospect, inevitable. There simply aren’t many (any?) bands doing it like black midi right now, and their Sunday night set was accordingly astonishing. A mock boxing announcer intro brought “the hardest-working band in show business” to the Criminal Records stage (the festival’s smallest), an obliquely humorous beginning to a set that never quite felt like it was taking place on this planet. Though they opened with Schlagenheim’s first two tracks, and played twice that amount of Cavalcade cuts, most of black midi’s set was dedicated to unreleased material (rumored track titles: “Welcome to Hell,” “Sugar/Tzu,” “Defence,” “Lumps,” “Eat Men, Eat” and “27 Q”), a fact the band mentioned, to our count, precisely zero times. Trying to describe a new black midi song (let alone a live one, let alone six live ones) is sort of like trying to trace the outline of a towering inferno, but our impression was of a grandiose middle ground somewhere between their first album’s guitar-driven rock cyclones and their second’s jazzy, proggy odysseys. That said, black midi’s set was a blur of esoteric energy and explosive musicianship, evoking the likes of both Primus and Steely Dan. Drummer Morgan Simpson is pictured in the dictionary next to the word “dynamo”; during one unreleased song, Greep managed simultaneous singing and riffing so fast and furious, it had us slack-jawed; and saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi exuded unfettered energy and charisma, locking into one of the band’s singular grooves with seemingly each individual member at one point or another. black midi’s set was an hourlong knockout punch that sent us reeling into the night.

Geese

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Photo by Charles Reagan

Making their music festival debut ahead of their much-anticipated album Projector (out this Friday, Oct. 29), buzzed-about Brooklyn act Geese rocked the Ponce de Leon stage early Saturday, showing the crowd (which started small and progressively grew) why theirs is a name to know. The teenage quintet played most of their forthcoming record, including standout singles “Low Era,” “Projector” and “Disco,” the last of which made for an absolutely killer closer, and tossed in a “Street Fighting Man” cover as a bonus. Guitarists Gus Green and Foster Hudson traded deft, spindly riffs, bassist Dom DiGesu and drummer Max Bassin drove the band’s undeniable grooves, and singer/lead songwriter Cameron Winter delivered his vocals with a twitchy energy that never wavered. That Geese can do dark, danceable post-punk is already well-established, but their Shaky Knees set suggested the true scope of the band’s potential, revealing their sound’s prettier, more sweeping side. Sky’s the limit.

IDLES

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Photo by Roger Ho

If there was one set we caught at Shaky Knees that delivered jumper cable levels of electricity, it was IDLES’ Saturday night rave-up on the Ponce de Leon stage. Attendees who passed up the chance to see rock legend Alice Cooper were rewarded with an hour of balls-to-the-wall post-punk, featuring songs from all three of the English quintet’s records (though, curiously, none from their forthcoming fourth album, CRAWLER, or at least none that we caught), and they went berserk accordingly. Vocalist Joe Talbot had the ferocious energy of a heavyweight boxer in a title fight, bounding up and down, doing high knees and pounding his chest to the beat while singing; meanwhile, guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan were in and out of the crowd all night, including an extended bit where Bowen, held aloft by the first few rows, led the audience in a seemingly improvised singalong of Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson,” Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything,” Steps’ “Since You Took Your Love Away,” and so on. At one point, Talbot had the crew light up the crowd, warmly observing, “Now that is a beautiful fucking thing.” You could say the same of IDLES’ set, an exhilarating explosion of hard-nosed humor and righteous rock fury.

Joy Oladokun

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Photo by Greg Noire

Sunday’s first few performers had a difficult combination of mid-day heat and Day 3 audience fatigue to overcome, but Joy Oladokun’s Peachtree stage set was effortlessly winning all the same. The singer/songwriter pulled most of her 10-song setlist from her self-released 2020 record in defense of my own happiness (the beginnings) and her 2021 major-label debut in defense of my own happiness, incorporating covers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (“Black people listen to Nirvana, too,” she quipped) and Prince’s “The Cross,” which she smoothly interpolated with her own “i see america” and “sunday,” respectively. Just as lovely as Oladokun’s groove-driven mix of folk, pop, rock and R&B was her stage presence: Dressed in an old-school Outkast shirt and backwards hat, she repeatedly cracked up the crowd between tracks, recounting the real-life experiences that inspired songs like “sorry isn’t good enough” (which she described as a “Fleetwood Mac ripoff song” about “dating someone who wasn’t dating me back”) and “jordan” (about growing up in the church as a lesbian—”God just wants you to treat people nice, he doesn’t care who you kiss,” she professed to cheers). Oladokun’s performance was powerful and tender in all the right places, an unmistakable display of her talent and charisma.

Lunar Vacation

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Photo by Sophie Harris

Saturday night’s Criminal Records stage crowd was yelling “We love you” at hometown rockers Lunar Vacation before they’d even started playing, and that sentiment pervaded the Atlanta band’s entire performance. “I don’t wanna get all mushy, but I’m gonna cry right now,” lead vocalist and guitarist Grace Repasky said, the first of many charming moments in their set; you could feel the love in the audience, with co-founding guitarist/vocalist Maggie Geeslin waving at friends between songs, and Repasky later giving “shouts out my parents, Kim and Anthony. And all of our parents!” Lunar Vacation’s hooky dream pop occupies a sweet spot between laidback and upbeat, evoking Alvvays and Mac DeMarco alike, and its danceability shines especially bright in a live setting. The band played quite a few songs from their forthcoming debut album Inside Every Fig Is a Dead Wasp, out this Friday, Oct. 29, and also performed a new song live for the first time, “No Offerings”—their 2021 collaboration with Finn Wolfhard’s The Aubreys, members of whom hopped onstage to duet with them. Lunar Vacation’s set was simply heartwarming, the kind of performance you walk away from either as a fan, or not at all.

Orville Peck

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Photo by Charles Reagan

Masked singer/songwriter Orville Peck took to the Peachtree stage in Sunday’s waning daylight hours, sharing his queer country songs with an enormous crowd. Clad in his signature cowboy hat and fringed mask combo, he opened with subdued tone setter “Big Sky” before moving into operatic Americana stomper “Winds Change,” a jammed-out “Turn to Hate,” and a muscular “Buffalo Run,” whose post-punk breakdown got many an arm in the air. It wasn’t all just Pony cuts—Peck also dipped into his Show Pony EP for the stark “No Glory in the West,” the yearning “Drive Me, Crazy” (“This next song is about truck drivers in love [...] I’m aspiring to meet a truck driver,” Peck confided) and “Legends Never Die,” his duet with Shania Twain, on which Peck’s touring guitarist and co-vocalist Bria Salmena handled Twain’s parts. The set’s standout moment, though, was Peck’s Americana cover of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”—”It took me a while to learn how to be myself, and it looks like this,” he said before launching into his rendition. It capped a thoroughly satisfying performance from an already-iconic artist.

Phoebe Bridgers

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Photo by Roger Ho

At this point, Phoebe Bridgers seems just shy of major festival headliner status—her signature skeleton onesie was omnipresent among Shaky Knees attendees, and as far as we could tell, her Sunday night performance amassed the Piedmont stage’s single biggest audience of 2021. Her show itself—the last of her current tour, she noted—lived up to that hype in every way, an arresting showcase of the singing and songwriting that have launched Bridgers to indie superstardom. Bridgers and her six-piece band devoted most of their setlist to 2020’s Punisher, retaining the gentle devastation of “Garden Song” and the title track, while peppering in Stranger in the Alps standouts like “Motion Sickness” and “Scott Street.” Live violin and trumpet gave even her saddest songs a celebratory dimension, while their absence—like when Bridgers cleared the stage for a stunning solo performance of “Georgia”—made the show’s hushed moments stand out all the more. Bridgers closed things out, of course, with “I Know the End” (“I love everybody so much, this is sad!” she said before the song began, already mourning her tour) moving the crowd from swaying to jumping up and down. The final blowout put an exclamation point on one of the festival’s best sets, a collection of bittersweet sounds that demanded surrender.

St. Vincent

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Photo by Greg Noire

We went into St. Vincent’s Friday night Peachtree stage set with relatively muted expectations, the primary question mark being how Annie Clark would synthesize the various iterations of her artistry—especially the latest, Daddy’s Home’s ‘70s funk worship—into a cohesive performance. The answer was “with ease,” as Clark and company put on an elaborate blockbuster of a show, from a slinky, funk-ified rendition of St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” and a theatrical, yet vulnerable “New York” (in which Clark literally reached out to the crowd, as seen above), to the ‘80s rock bombast of “Sugarboy” (during which she briefly returned to the “Los Ageless” riff) and apocalyptic psych-funk of closer “Melting of the Sun.” She made time for a couple of deep cuts, as well, delivering dynamic, hard-rocking renditions of Strange Mercy’s “Cheerleader” and Marry Me’s “Your Lips Are Red.” And on top of the songs themselves, Clark and her band did it all as performers, from elaborate choreography, costumes and a mid-set comedy/crowd participation bit to explosive solos (drum included) and Clark and her lead guitarist suggestively rubbing their instruments together. St. Vincent’s chameleonic shifts are a wonder to behold on her albums, but are even more so when she’s cycling through them from moment to moment, in real time.

Shaky Knees returns April 29-May 1, 2022.


Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.