Four Things I Learned at Shaky Knees 2023

Crowd shot of Shaky Knees 2023
VIP by Roger Ho for Shaky Knees 2023

In May, I got to cover the Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the biggest indie-inclined fests in the Southeast. The festival was celebrating its tenth anniversary, bringing in headliners like The Killers, Muse, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Flaming Lips; Shaky Knees’ first-ever headliner, The Lumineers, also returned. 

And, for the first time in the festival’s ten-year history, Shaky Knees was sold out, with more than 40,000 attendees each day over the course of the three-day fest. 

Aerial shot of Shaky Knees 2023
Aerial by Grant Hodgeon for Shaky Knees 2023

Shaky Knees was founded by Atlanta-based promoter and producer, Tim Sweetwood. The name comes from indie-rock band My Morning Jacket’s song, “Steam Engine.” Atlanta’s Central Park has hosted the festival since 2018. The sprawling 17-acre park includes large expanses of grassy fields connected by paved roads and sidewalks. The four stages – Peachtree, Piedmont, Ponce de Leon and Criminal Records – are far enough apart so that two acts can perform at the same time without playing over each other. 

For me, the festival was a surreal experience. I heard music and saw bands perform that shaped my adolescence. Waves of nostalgia washed over me, in the best way possible, while watching Irish folk-pop artist Hozier and Denver folkies The Lumineers. It was also fun to hear a few artists I’ve come to enjoy in recent years – Tanukichan and The Aquadolls, among others. 

There were also many bands completely new to me, who won me over with their stellar performances. I’ll go ahead and recommend pop/punk artist Charlotte Sands and indie-pop duo Water From Your Eyes.

Here’s four things I learned while attending Shaky Knees 2023: 

Shaky Knees Loves Local

Despite people flooding in from across the country for the festival, Shaky Knees welcomes all guests and performers with southern hospitality. There’s a warm buzz in the air, and suddenly over the course of the weekend, you start to feel a bit like a local. From riding the MARTA, Atlanta’s public transportation system, into the festival, to enjoying local concessions throughout the food stalls on the grounds, Atlanta plays a prominent role in the Shaky Knees visitor experience. 

Gringo Star
Essay author Carissa Marques with Atlanta psych-garage rockers Gringo Star

Talking to the bands reinforced the shared love for the Atlanta music scene. The guys from psychedelic-garage group Gringo Star grew up in the area, and have been playing together for years. As we talked about local venues they were reminiscing on having to sell tickets to perform at The Masquerade, a landmark local venue where, “If you played there,” the group said, “you were a real band.” 

Trash Panda, Killer Mike, Anna Kramer and Futurebirds are a few more bands on the lineup that got their start in and around Atlanta. Thomas Johnson, a guitarist and vocalist from Futurebirds told me, “It feels very surreal to be able to play this festival I’ve been coming to for years. We have all the ARTlanta folks out there, it’s definitely a hometown show for us.” 

Futurebirds’ guitarist Carter King added, “We also had our family members out, my little nephew is out for his first show ever backstage. It’s been such a wholesome experience.” 

“The craziest thing about this year is that this is the first time we’re playing where we’re all living in Atlanta. There’s just this excitement about it, it’s like a home show,” said Hannah Hooper from GROUPLOVE. After explaining most of the band moved to the city three years ago, she said, “The people have really just taken us in. I feel like I’ve lived here longer than I did in California.” 

Shaky Ink: Some Folks Have Free Admission for Life 

I was talking to someone about how I was going to the festival a couple weeks before heading to Atlanta. She mentioned to me that her brother has a tattoo of the logo, and then continued to say how this got him free admission for life. This was news to me, I’d never heard of a music festival doing anything like this, but my marketing brain was impressed to say the least. 

Shame crowd surfing
English post-punkers Shame getting amongst the people | by Pooneh Ghana for Shaky Knees

I fact-checked it on their website, and it turns out 2019 was the last year for festival lovers to register their tattoo for the lifetime deal. The logo has to be the size of a half-dollar, and must be in permanent ink. When my friend and I got to the festival, we saw a line at the bag-check called “tattoo entry.” At first, she thought it was a line to get tattooed at the festival, then I remembered the piece of information I learned a couple weeks prior and told her we had to keep an eye out for the branded ink around the festival. I only saw one up close, a girl had it on her upper arm with cute floral details around it. 

Next time, I should just stand near the tattoo entrance to get a look at the variety of interpretations people have! 

Shaky Knees Votes 

This year Shaky Knees teamed up with HeadCount, a non-partisan organization in partnership with Global Citizen that registers people to vote. 

I was able to talk to Lucy Beach, HeadCount’s partnership and events manager. Though this wasn’t HeadCount’s first time in Atlanta, the organization wanted to get involved with Shaky Knees, especially with the new voting laws that Georgia enforced in 2022. Georgia residents were able to register to vote on-site at the festival, and out-of-state guests were guided to resources they could use once they were back home. 

“It’s a more relaxed environment, sometimes people get scared when talking about politics. When you’re at a concert and you’re out with your friends, we’re not trying to attack you with political ideas,” said Beach when asked why HeadCount concentrates on having a presence at concerts. “We’re completely non-partisan. We just want to get people registered to vote.” 

Beach mentioned how they’re able to help new voters and younger demographics, “We have a lot of people who need to change their address. A lot of college kids move around and they don’t necessarily know that they need to re-register with their new address.” 

With the help of HeadCount, 1,700 Shaky Knees attendees are now ready to vote in the next election.

Shaky Knees: For First-Timers and Repeat Attendees 

Shaky Knees was the first music festival I ever attended back in 2021. The energy I experienced at that first festival was the same, if not stronger this year. While some music festivals can be rowdy, filled with cutthroat attendees all fighting for a better view, Shaky Knees is more relaxed. 

I managed to get close to the Peachtree stage, the festival’s largest stage, for The Lumineers’ set. This came with standing and waiting for over an hour pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with other attendees. A few of the girls I met all said it was their first time, and that the experience had been incredible so far. It was sweet to see the camaraderie amongst the crowd. We even played “head’s up,” a guess-the-song sort of game while waiting between sets, with complete strangers joining in. 

Before the Peaches set on Friday, my friend and I met a person who had been to almost every Shaky Knees. They said even after they moved out of Atlanta, they continued to come to the festival. Last year, they drove from Austin, Texas, but decided to opt for a flight for this year’s journey. 

A mother I met sitting on the grass with her 8-year-old daughter told me how she and her husband usually come to the festival together, but this year they brought their two children to experience the weekend with them. 

If you missed the tenth anniversary, there’s always next year. Your knees will be shaking and your music-loving heart will be racing.

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