BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Atlanta has blossomed into Festival Central the past few years, with niche genres from EDM (TomorrowWorld) to indie rock (Shaky Knees, which returned last weekend) to jam rock (the expanding SweetWater 420 Fest) represented.
It seemed odd to promoter Tim Sweetwood that country music wasn’t showcased anywhere in the Atlanta area – at least not in the major-headliners-over-multiple-days sense – and thus, Shaky Boots was born (you can read more about its background here).
On Saturday, the first of the two-day festival launched at KSU Sports and Entertainment Park in Kennesaw, a location that worked well thanks to the built-in infrastructure of Fifth Third Band Stadium, which can hold about 16,000 for concerts.
The stadium is equipped with the largest of the three stages erected for Shaky Boots (it’s dubbed the Peachtree Stage for fest purposes); and yes, it’s a bit of a hike between the Peachtree Stage and the farthest outpost, the Piedmont Stage (the Ponce De Leon Stage is stationed between them).
But, while it was still a solid 10 degrees warmer than usual for this time in May, the weather became more tolerable as the afternoon wore on and fans – estimated at about 20,000 – clamored to hear the music of a deep-bench lineup including Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Dwight Yoakam, The Band Perry, Kristian Bush, Jason Isbell and Joe Nichols.
Tickets are still available for Sunday’s day of music (details here), which will spotlight Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Sara Evans, Ricky Skaggs and many more.
Headliner Shelton provided an early endorsement for the festival, noting a few songs into his set, “I’ve only been here 10 minutes or so, but I freaking love Shaky Boots!”
Here are some of the musical highlights of the 11 hours of music.
Kristian Bush: The amiable Atlantan has embarked on a Sugarland-less solo run, and joked early in his afternoon performance, “You’re not going to believe this, but people just figured out I could sing.” Bush and his taut five-piece band – including keyboardist brother Brandon (sans mustache!) and Sugarland bassist Annie Clements – breezed through songs from his new release, “Southern Gravity,” and threw in the tender Sugarland classic, “Baby Girl,” as a bonus. Bush, in his trademark black hat, as well as a sun-defying vest, tie, sleeves-rolled-up dress shirt and dark jeans, had the crowd finger-snapping along to the head-nodding delight that is “Trailer Hitch.” The romantic “You Light Me Up” and frisky “Giving It Up” prompted the crowd to sing along, while the set-closing title track of his album, sung in Bush’s richly soulful voice, sealed his triumphant set. Said Bush after his performance, “It’s nice to see Atlanta experience a large,
national country festival. And it’s magic to hear my hometown sing my songs back to me!”
Joe Nichols: Plenty of women had staked out spots in the sun long before the wavy-haired hunk took the stage with “Brokenheartsville.” With his easy grin and effortless (Joe) cool, Nichols both rocked (“Hard to Be Cool”) and lulled (the ballad “The Impossible”) – all with his voice soaring in one dreamy package.
Jana Kramer: The former “One Tree Hill” star has carved a respectable country career the past few years, and while she might not be quite ready for the main stage, where she performed Saturday afternoon, she presented an energetic set of covers and originals. Her version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” was well-suited to her voice, while her own “Whiskey,” colored with lap steel guitar, showcased her rock-country leanings. Looking casually glamorous in shorts and heels, Kramer strolled the catwalk, mentioned her upcoming nuptials (next weekend) and dug into the Shania-esque stomp-and-clap of “Don’t Touch My Radio.” A medley of rock songs including Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” The White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army” and a guitar-centric version of Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” instilled Kramer’s set with a jolt of fun familiarity.
Kip Moore: In his tight jeans and backward red trucker hat, Moore is sexy in that way that just looks like trouble. The Tifton native certainly showcased his masculinity as he growled through “Wild Ones” and “Crazy
One More Time.” Equal parts Jon Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp, Moore’s music is more gritty rock than country – and his rough and raspy voice only adds to the muscular sound. Songs such as “Reckless (Still Growin’ Up)” and “Beer Money” sounded strikingly like the tunes Bon Jovi presented during its country phase – which isn’t to knock Moore. He’s a solid performer with catchy tunes, but the country purists might wrinkle their noses.
Jason Isbell: The former Drive-By Truckers member took the insightful route with his set. His smooth voice clear and soaring, Isbell and his band offered a meaningful performance stocked with lilting acoustic ballads including “Different Days” and “Cover Me Up,” which was injected with bursts of slide guitar and violin. Amusingly – since this was, after all, a country music festival – Isbell announced that he was going to play “a country song.” The accordion-laden “Codeine” – which he wrote a few years ago during a bout with insomnia – would make any country music fan a believer.
The Band Perry: That their pre-show music included songs from Fall Out Boy and Ariana Grande gives you a strong idea of the sibling trio’s desire to straddle the pop and country worlds – and they happen to do it exceptionally well. Not only are singer Kimberly Perry and her brothers Reid (bass) and Neil (guitar) adorable and charismatic, but they’ve developed into ace performers, commanding the stage during punchy country-rockers “Done” and “Night Gone Wasted,” playing to all sides during “You Lie” and “I’m a Keeper.” But what is most enjoyable about watching TBP is the youthful energy that bounces off the stage. Their slam-dunk cover of “Uptown Funk” should hereby be added to their set list forever – or at least for the rest of 2015 – and be used as a blueprint by any other acts that dare tread on the same territory. But, as they demonstrated during their early hit, the ballad “All Your Life,” the Perrys can restrain themselves when necessary. But we prefer them when they don’t.
Dierks Bentley: Mr. “Drunk on a Plane” has cornered the market on songs designed to wave beers in the air (and done it in a totally refreshing, non-bro-country manner). “Am I the Only One,” “Feel That Fire” and “”Tip It On Back” showcased both Bentley’s twangy side as well as his penchant for writing huge hooks. He also impressively courts both male and female fans – he invited a dude on stage to shotgun a beer and later made note of “all these Georgia country girls” in the crowd.
Blake Shelton: Moments after wife Miranda Lambert’s “Somethin’ Bad” finished blaring through the speakers, the unassuming Shelton sauntered onstage, tearing into “Neon Light” with his six-piece band and backup singer. Shelton’s career continues to ascend not because of his visibility on “The Voice,” but because the show has allowed America to become enamored with his smart-alecky wit and mischievous grin – both of which were on display during his headlining set. Shelton sounded robust as he rolled through “All About Tonight,”
the easy-chugging “Doin’ What She Likes” and the crowd-rousing “Kiss My Country Ass.” Shelton also played to the hometown crowd by stating, “I have had things happen to me in Kennesaw, Georgia,” and using it as a segue into his hit from more than a decade ago, “Some Beach” (from the mullet and playing-small-clubs-in-Georgia years). Shelton was the perfect choice to wrap the first night of the first Shaky Boots –he’s a superstar, yes, but also still the guy you still want to sit at the bar with and down a whiskey.