XPoNential Music Festival: Saturday's Adventures.
Disclaimer: There was just TOO MUCH good music at the fest on Saturday. The exclusion from this article of any artist is due to space limitation and not performance significance.
You hear the phrase “something for everyone” so often that – like most clichés – it eventually loses meaning. But the XPNoNential Festival, like WXPN itself, does truly serve up a surprisingly wide range of music. The festival, once called Singer Songwriter Weekend and located on the river’s west side, has been happening for a long time, and to my eyes and ears, just keeps getting better.
Even without the aural delights, the festival is a feast for the senses. More often than not, there’s a breeze blowing off the river. And the view – the Philly skyline, the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the ongoing parade of watercraft – is breathtaking.
The best part is that I always discover at least one unfamiliar artist that knocked my socks off and makes me want to immediately buy the CD (yeah, I still do that … buy CDs) and listen to it non-stop for a few weeks. And, I’m also often reminded of how much I like an artist or band I know already after seeing a performance at the fest.
Another delight is watching people in the audience have a similar experience. The person starts out groovin’ just a little in the beach chair. Then he’s nodding his head more vigorously, and before you know it, the guy’s on his feet. By the end of the song, he’s abandoned his spot on the grass and headed down front to get a better look. It happens a lot.
Saturday’s concert was packed with new love and renewed appreciation for me. Ever since I heard Birdie Busch interviewed by XPN’s Michaela Majoun (and then later learned that one of the awesome Mambo Movers who helped me relocate plays in Birdie’s band, I have wanted to see her perform. Birdie and her group opened the day with a lively set, complete with some fine pedal steel guitar playing and terrific harmonies.
In fact, if I had to name an aspect that characterized many of the acts this year, I’d pinpoint vocals. The art of harmonizing was definitely alive and well at the festival.
One example is Harper Blynn, who played a thoroughly engaging set before the heat really took hold on Saturday. The songwriters, J. Blynn (from Philly) and Pete Harper (from Chicago) brought together their individual influences – alternative rock like Nirvana and Garbage for Pete; jazz and folk for J. – to create a sound Pete calls “groovy rock ‘n’ roll”. “We try to make music that people can feel, and melodically relate to, without having to know what it’s about”. Their release “The Loneliest Generation” came out in May.
Nicole Atkins won me over with her dynamite performance. Nicole played the fest two years ago, and returned with a new band and a different sound, which she calls “psychedelic blues”. “Funny,” I told her, “I thought your guitar player DID sound like Jimi Hendrix at times.” A visual as well as musical artist, Nicole draws from Brit rock, movies, Edith Piaf, musical theater and more for her songs. She is opening in August for Rufus Wainwright and says she is a big fan of his. “I borrow from him regularly,” she says. Commenting about a song part, she told one of her band members, “I totally Rufus-ed that”.
Nebraska native, Joshua James, caught me completely off-guard. Looking even younger than his 25 years, Joshua has crafted songs that speak with experience and intensity. “I’ve always been fascinated by the dark side of life,” he says. Raised by “very religious parents”, Joshua found refuge in music (and skateboarding) and learned the guitar when he was 19. All the songs in his set were from the 2009 release “Build Me This”.
Diane Birch was another surprise. Diane is an accomplished musician and has a clear, sweet vocal style. It’s hard to peg her sound – a little diva/crooner/songstress and little updated and fresh disco (and I mean that in the BEST way). Whatever it is, though, the crowd loved her and bought every last CD she brought.
Then came Yo La Tengo! As if it weren’t enough for the veteran band to churn out their signature have-fun music, they embellished it with lots of wah wah, reverb, and what my festival companion called “feedback frenzy”. And, to top it off, The Sun Ra Arkestra, in all their spangled glory, came onstage and added horns a plenty to the sound. When the bands departed, XPN’s Bob Bumbera exclaimed, “Well, there’s a highlight for you!”
Former XPN Artist to Watch, Robert Francis, made good on the promise of his undeniably catchy tune, “Junebug”, with a really strong performance. Robert’s backing band was tight, his vocal range let him hit all the notes, and he seems to have the onstage presence of a seasoned pro. I predict we’ll be hearing more from him.
Part of the fun of these XPN festivals is reconnecting friends I made when I was Volunteer Coordinator at the station. Many of the volunteers who started with me in the early 90s are still going strong with WXPN, and I love seeing these folks and soaking up their ceaseless passion for music. Len, a 20 veteran of the volunteer ranks, is a perfect example. Len, who is now retired and a grandfather a few times over, still likes a lot of the music that WXPN played when he began volunteering. When I asked him to name his favorite artist of the weekend, he answered, without hesitation, “Rosanne Cash”.
In the last-but-most-definitely-not-least category, is Ben Vaughn. Singer, songwriter, producer, composer, and now radio host, the South Jersey native has clearly covered some ground since he left the East Coast in 1995. Ben and his former band mates, onstage together for the first time in nearly a decade, put on a sensational show. Other than “Two Mile Road”, which he told me is a new song, the set list was brimming with a selection of Ben’s clever and timeless tunes from back in another day. Who can help but sing along with “I Dig Your Wig” or “I’m Sorry, But So Is Brenda Lee”? And, these days, Ben is channeling his considerable talent into the “Many Moods of Ben Vaughn” a unique radio adventure that is an absolute must for music lovers. The show airs on Saturday at 5 on WXPN, that’s – at Ben’s insistence - before Jerry Blavat’s “Geator's R'n'R R&B Express. “I wouldn’t want to come on after The Geator,” Ben said.
There was a lot more than just the music at the XPN festival. The kids’ activities were plentiful, the audience members were a show in themselves, the vegetarian mango salad was an excellent meal choice, and the moon hovering over Wiggins Park is an image I won’t soon forget.
As XPN GM said at the end of the fest, “That was so much fun, I think we’ll do it again next year”. If I were you, I’d make plans to be there.