by Adam McGrath
Damn, we are one lucky city to have a radio station like WXPN. The wide-reaching impact of such a revered institution, which also encompasses a first-class music venue and thoughtful media coverage, cannot be overstated. Luckily, we are reminded of our good fortune in a big way each summer, as all the moving parts of WXPN come together to put on one of the best three-day music festivals in the country.
The 2014 XPoNential Music Festival presented by Subaru was a huge success, treating music fans from Philly, New Jersey, and beyond to three days of amazing artistic talent. Since the festival has landed in Wiggins Park on the Camden waterfront, the event keeps getting bigger and better, and this year’s outing went off without a hitch, with even the weather cooperating for the most part. If there were any doubt left in your mind about whether to become a WXPN member, attending XPNFest would quickly erase any reluctance to support such a fantastic organization.
Friday night was all about the River Stage for me. I arrived just in time for the lovely Lucius to take the main stage, with lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig rocking their signature twins look in matching Good & Plenty outfits. This was a big moment for the band, which has been riding a wave of popularity since the release of its debut album, Wildewoman, in 2013. Lucius lived up to expectations with a fun and vibrant set. There’s something about using extra tom drums to allow each band member to join in thundering percussion that just works for me.
As the sun went down behind the Philadelphia skyline, The Hold Steady made a gorgeous night even more beautiful with a highly satisfying performance. Appropriately kicking things off with “Constructive Summer”, it was immediately apparent that lead singer Craig Finn was feeling it. I’d been waiting a long time to witness his bombastic stage presence and revel in his singular vocal delivery, and he did not disappoint. I really like “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, the first track on new album Teeth Dreams, and by the time classic songs like “Chips Ahoy!” and “Stuck Between Stations” rolled around, everyone was freaking out just as much as I was. It was a little different hearing these songs without keys, but since The Hold Steady has made that change, they seem even livelier than before.
I did spend time over at the JerseyArts.com Marina Stage Friday night, and would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the legendary blues man James Cotton. Holding court in the middle of the stage with his harmonica, Cotton entertained the sizable crowd with an expert’s ease, taking me back to my days in Chicago. It doesn’t get more authentic.
The headliner at Wiggins Park Friday night was Rodrigo y Gabriela, the Mexican guitar duo that reinterprets and redefines classical guitar. The talent of these two is undeniable, as they created complex, layered sounds with a variety of strumming and knocking techniques. The crystal-clear guitar amplification allowed each plucked string to reverberate throughout the venue. After bringing their heavy metal energy to the first part of the set, Rodrigo and Gabriela each played a few songs by themselves, achieving an odd intimacy with one person on a big stage. My least favorite aspect of the performance was what Rodrigo dubbed the “karaoke” part of the set, where he strummed through a few different pop songs before settling into Radiohead’s “Creep”, which is one of those songs I never want to hear again. So while they lost me a bit there, as soon as I heard the opening notes of “Tamacun”, all was forgiven.
After a heavy shower Saturday morning, the rain dried up enough to get things started on time with a couple of local bands, Our Griffins and Commonwealth Choir. Playing XPNFest is a huge opportunity for these up-and-coming bands to get in front of a wider audience, which perfectly demonstrates WXPN’s commitment to growing local music. Each band vocalized their appreciation to the fine people at the radio station during quick, tight sets.
As folks ping-ponged back and forth between the Marina and River Stages, the lineup progressed naturally through a variety of musical genres. Caitlin Rose brought sweet alt-country on one stage, followed nicely by cajun folk rock from Hurray for the Riff Raff. Marah then ramped things up with rollicking guitar rock that featured the weekend’s youngest performer, eight-year-old Gus Tritsch, who is a phenom on the fiddle and rocked a slide on his cigar-box guitar. He wowed the crowd while fitting in seamlessly with the rest of the band.
Marah provided a good warm-up for what was the performance of the day from Strand of Oaks, led by the emotionally charged Tim Showalter. Seven of the set’s eight songs came from Strand of Oaks fantastic new album, Heal, plus the gentle “Diamond Drill”. Showalter led the charge with fire in his belly, and the band gave him a wave to ride as the songs sprawled beyond their studio constraints. I flat-out love the song “Goshen ’97”, both for its upbeat guitar line and cathartic introspective nostalgia, and it seemed like the entire festival was right there with me.
The evening’s headliners next door at Susquehanna Bank Center were Dawes, Jenny Lewis, and Ryan Adams, three acts that I was familiar with by name if not by catalogue. For me, the night came down to two consecutive songs, closing number “She’s Not Me” by Jenny Lewis, which featured Ryan Adams on guitar, and “Gimme Something Good” from Adams’ forthcoming album, which kicked off his set. Those two performances were the standouts from my perspective.
Sunday was by far the most crowded day of the festival, which makes perfect sense given the spectacular lineup. While the steamy day got even hotter with scorching sets from J. Roddy Walston & The Business, Nicole Atkins, Old 97’s, and Lake Street Dive, I have to get right to the ultimate champion of Wiggins Park, Philadelphia’s own experimental weirdos, Man Man.
The area in front of the Marina Stage was packed with youngsters a good half hour before Man Man was scheduled to play. It was the biggest crowd at that stage all weekend, and once the band came running out in matching tie-dye pants, the entire hill was standing in anticipation, a rare feat at XPNFest. Cheers erupted as outlandish lead singer Honus Honus twirled about in a fantastic cloak, and the show was on from there. Honus sat at his piano directly across from drummer Pow Pow, and the two played off each other and the crowd throughout a set that drew largely from the band’s 2013 album On Oni Pond. Two additional musicians whipped through a bevy of instruments, from guitar and bass to trumpet and saxophone and beyond. The pathway behind the stage was full of fans enjoying the novel angle provided there, and all groups gathered in singing along to hit single “Head On.” It was without question the most exciting performance of the weekend at Wiggins Park.
After 30 artists in three days, it was down to the final stretch. WXPN outdid themselves with Sunday night’s headliners. Youthful local favorites The Districts powered through their opening set, seeming right at home even though playing the SBC must have been a trip. But, with their whirlwind success and natural talent, big stages are sure to become a regular occurrence.
Band of Horses put together their usual excellent set, featuring songs from throughout their impressive catalogue. My friends and I were stoked to hear “Laredo”, “Is There A Ghost”, and of course “The Funeral”, among others. Lead singer Ben Bridwell took a couple turns sitting at a pedal steel guitar, and his signature vocals emanated smoothly from under a tattered trucker cap.
And then, there was Beck. Oh my god, Beck. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’d never seen him live and knew his recent album, Morning Phase, was a more mellow effort. But when the lights came up and the opening riff of “Devil’s Haircut” pounded out, I knew I was in for a treat. This was Beck in full-throttle funk mode, dancing around the stage in chic boots and flat-brimmed hat while colorful visuals swirled behind him. The packed house went wild as he and his fantastic band kept the pedal down on “Black Tambourine”, “The New Pollution”, and “Gamma Ray.”
Before anyone could really recover from the breakneck pace of the first six songs, a familiar acoustic guitar riff brought the crowd right back to its peak. Beck was playing “Loser”! This was starting to get unreal. But that was not even the apex. Dude played a full rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” It was unbelievable. We had a chance to catch our breath during the beautiful sequence of “Blue Moon” followed by “Lost Cause”, and those on the lawn were treated to a magnificent display of lightning crackling over the Ben Franklin Bridge. It was the most perfect concert moment I can remember in a long time.
Just as we started to regain our senses, Beck ramped the tempo back up with “Girl” and “E-Pro” closing out the set. It wasn’t long before we were all being instructed to defy “Sexx Laws” for an encore. Fan favorite “Debra” followed, and the performance capped off with an extended jam of “Where It’s At.” Exhausted but fully satisfied, the crowd made it to their cars just as the heavens opened up. It was as if Beck’s epic performance had held off Mother Nature herself.
The XPoNential Music Festival is a hallmark event for Delaware Valley music fans, and this year’s affair was perhaps the best one yet. The weather held out, there were more beer tents and bathrooms, and everyone enjoyed visiting the vendors and meeting the artists. Congratulations to everyone at WXPN for putting on an amazing festival, and thank you for making your members proud.
View our photo album from the weekend over on our Facebook page.