Written by TJ McGlinchey and photos by Liv Foltiny
It was a beautiful weekend for music and good vibrations at the Wiggins Park Marina for this year’s XPoNential Music Fest presented by University of Pennsylvania radio station 88.5 WXPN on September 17, 18, and 19, 2021.
Two stages were set to host dozens of bands over the weekend, the River Stage and the Marina Stage. The River Stage catered to larger acts, bands more prone to dancing, situated at the bottom of a large natural amphitheater. Nestled right next to the Marina, just over a small hill, was the Marina Stage. This special stage was reserved especially for singer/songwriters and Nashville acts on their first leg of a tour since 2019.
Saturday, September 18, 2021
On Saturday, September 18th, the second day of the festival, the first act we caught was Philly locals, Stella Ruze, on the River Stage. Established in 2014 by Brendan Johnson and Katie O’Donnell, the band has recently expanded to include two drummers, a trumpet player, a saxophonist, a keyboardist, and 3 and 4 part vocal harmonies. Stella Ruze’s sound is reminiscent of Paul Simon and the crowd responded well to them being that they were the first act of the afternoon. I saw a few familiar faces up on stage with Stella Ruze including Rob Tait on percussion and Gabe Preston on trumpet. Their set was fun and danceable and fans stuck around to talk to the band afterward.
Over on the Marina Stage, we caught a group called Great Time. Their sound is along the lines of what I would call Neo/New Wave. The lead singer played synths in front of what was essentially a funk trio who also had synths attached to their instruments. In a neon jumpsuit, the lead singer could have managed on her own. The trio could have played a mean funk set on their own, as well. But, as a band, the combination is artfully executed. The sound was synth-heavy but ultimately danceable. They employed two laptops, one on the drums and one with the lead singer. She also played saxophone and flute throughout the set.
After the band, Great Time, we headed back to the River Stage for Paul Beaubrun and his band from Haiti. At first blush, there was a strong flavor of Fela Kuti. This young quartet slickly transitioned between rock and roll, reggae, blues, Caribbean, cumbia, salsa, and more.
Beaubrun rocked the lead guitar effortlessly. They led a vocal jam heavily laden with percussion that ended in a sing-a-long and passionately screamed directions to ‘Go Low!’, ‘Jump!’, and ‘Scream!’. The highlight of their set was a very cool, very reggae version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers.
Nashville singer/songwriter, Michaela Anne, and her quintet crooned to audiences from the Marina Stage. This was her second show back prior to the pandemic. She employed spacey intros and synth strings to begin a few of her songs. Strong three-part harmonies and an authentic pop-country sound were eerily reminiscent of Stevie-Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac.
Her songs were heartfelt and employed clever turns of phrases in her lyrics. I especially enjoyed this lyric: “I’m not the fire, I’m just the smoke…”
I caught up with Philadelphian bassist, Charlie Muench, (an old classmate of mine from West Chester University’s bass studio where we both studied under Peter Paulsen), and he told us that the rest of the band came up from Nashville while he joined them for shows in PA, NJ, and NYC. This group is going places, I’m a fan.
The 29-year-old Cuban vocalist known as Cimafunk was warmed up and ready to rock when we returned to the River Stage. This band is all business, and their business is funk. Two female singers who also doubled on trombone and saxophone, respectively, backed up a lead singer who resembled a young, Cuban James Brown. The rhythm section included a drum kit, congas, hand percussion, bass, and electric guitar. At moments, they reminded me of an Afro-Cuban Fishbone, or funkadelic or both, combined with the Fania All-Stars.
The lead singer had all the moves and charisma of a master like Héctor Lavoe or James Brown. I must also mention that the backup singer playing hand percussion was integral to the band’s sound. The claves and the güiro were the stars of the show in this group full of soon-to-be- superstars. I must also mention heavy usage of the Stravinsky orchestra-hit sample featured in most hip-hop songs produced between 1981 through 1993.
On the Marina Stage, Adia Victoria, from South Carolina, emphatically informed the crowd that she “Drove up to play the blues for you.” Her voice was instantly breathy and bluesy, but her mic technique was lacking and it made for an uneven vocal performance. However, her band was tight and she and they got extra points for wearing matching black and red western-themed outfits with boots and hats and all. If you walked away from the stage a bit, you could hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band warming up in the BB&T Pavilion.
Strand of Oaks, a straight-up rock and roll outfit, was next on the River Stage. The band was tight. Three-part harmonies, electric guitars, a three-piece Ludwig drum kit, and absolutely spot-on stage presence made their performance spectacular. The lead guitar solos were amazing. Towards the end of their set, they were stretching out into Pink Floyd territory.
Next up, on the Marina Stage, the crowd was starting to boil over in anticipation of the arrival and performance of one Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.
Suddenly, though he was not yet on stage, Kingfish‘s guitar began to scream. He appears from off-stage just ripping up a solo over that groove. From there the temperature only went up. Of course, there were ups and downs, highs and lows, throughout the set. But Kingfish absolutely held the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. He got out into the middle and then just rocked for five minutes or so before heading back down the
hill to get back on stage. The crowd was absolutely foaming at the mouth at this point. He ended the set by starting a very loud and fast solo over the tune, “Hey Joe,” and then dropped his guitar down onto the stage with a huge band and giant static and feedback while he walked off and hopped onto a golf cart. Absolutely legend.
Capping off the afternoon on the River Stage was the singer/songwriter, Ani DiFranco. Her trio consisted of a drummer/percussionist, a keyboardist/bassist, and herself on vocals, plus an array of really cool, old guitars for various tunings. She joked with the crowd initially, saying “I like this set-up. You all have the light in your eyes this time. Now you can see how it feels…” She launched into a set of mostly new songs mixed with classics. She is the master of the use of dissonance in her songs and from song to song in her sets. She can hit a chord that will make your shoulders tighten and then resolve it in such a way as to make you actually relax a bit. She’ll go from a taught, confessional song and then follow it with a tune that makes you smile again. She’s a master performer and another who always has the crowd right there in her palm.
Later at the BB&T Pavilion, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and the Tedeschi Trucks Band rocked out for four solid hours. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong were lively, danceable, and generally provided a fun atmosphere for the crowd to dance their butts off on the lawn. Their setlist included just five incredibly stretched-out songs including: “Penguins,” “Somethin’ For Ya,” “Fun In Funk,” “Horizon,” and “Lightning.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band, conversely, while rocking out completely, was less lively on stage. With a setlist that included covers of The Wood Brothers’ “Smoke Ring Halo,” as well as “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin,'” by the Allman Brothers Band, and “Bell-Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes. Tedeschi Trucks kept up its reputation for being the next generation of enlightened southern rock.
Sunday, September 19, 2021
The next day it was even more sunny and bright than the day before and the crowd was just as excited. I had been surviving on lemonade and chicken empanadas for most of the weekend. Between sets, you could hear the brass band, Snacktime, up at the top of the hill playing cleverly arranged pop tunes, including Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and “Waterfalls” by TLC. Unfortunately, one of the headliners, Dawes, had to cancel their set due to positive COVID-19 tests. Cimafunk was added to the bill and Shovels and Rope was moved up to close out the festival.
Sunday’s festivities began on the Marina Stage with songwriter/vocalist, Anna Shoemaker, joined by an accompanist on acoustic guitar. Her tunes were a bit emo, a bit folk-punk. She and her accompanist were sharing beers throughout the set. She seemed both nervous and relaxed and having fun at the same time. She spoke with the audience like they were her family sitting out in the crowd. Off-hand comments and asides punctuated a set of introspective, existential songs with titles like “It’s Depression” and “Laugh Until I Die.” Her voice reminds me of another amazing Philly vocalist named Ali Wadsworth.
Over on the River Stage, things were heating up. The sun was beating down on an ever-increasingly expectant crowd of rabid Tommy Conwell fans. This classic rock group referenced their own songs as they introduced them. For their third song, Tommy announced, “This is the first song off our first album.” For their fourth song, “We did this on Letterman back in 1989!”… and so on. He was adamant that “the eighties are coming back!’ many times throughout the set. I’ll give it to him, Tommy Conwell still rocks out. His band is awesome.
Singer/songwriter, Sierra Ferrel, sweetly sang songs of struggle and love and everything else in-between from her perch on the Marina Stage. Here we had another group of Nashville professionals pretending to be a live band, but really doing exactly what they did in the studio. However, Ferrel‘s look (complete with denim jumper, nose ring, and facial tattoo), was just the beginning of my interest in this songstress. Before going on stage, while I was chatting with the sound technician and local musician, Jim Tauscher (IATSE, Local 8), I saw her rocking a leather fringe mask over her regular mask. This lady is cool as hell. But what really had me swooning was her amazing voice. Her songs are fun and her band was tight. She also had a fiddler and a bassist. They were short one other member due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Nashville-based singer/songwriter, Devon Gillfillian, will knock your socks off, then help you put them back on, and tie your shoes for you. He came dressed to the nines in psychedelic businesswear ready to croon to the crowd awaiting him in front of the River Stage. He did just that. His first tune was sexy and slow and had stops that lasted just a bit too long, but also just long enough. This man is a soul singer who loves chatting with his audience. He has two cats, named Felicia and Barry White. His band had killer backing vocals, especially during a rousing version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” with the addition of the members of Snacktime bolstering the horn section. He was seen chatting up fans and posing for pictures throughout the festival after his set.
Back over at the Marina Stage, singer/songwriter, Jade Bird, was warming up. She played solo, just her and an acoustic guitar. She informed the crowd that thought they’d notice her English accent, even though she had recently moved to Texas. She had a backing vocalist to flesh out vocal harmonies over sweet and personal songs. This Brit has got a firm hold on an Americana sound and style. It was nice to hear someone from across the pond as opposed to the many Nashvillian folks we’d had through the weekend.
Next up on the River Stage was Cimafunk for a second set, but not before Snacktime could get up and play a quick version of P-Funk’s “Do That Stuff.” Cimafunk came out guns-blazing for their second set of sexy, Spanish-speaking funk. That famous Stravinsky orchestra-hit sample came out early in the set and stuck around. They also made heavier use of 80s synth sounds. Cimafunk is everything you want in a party band. Funk, Latin, Caribbean, hip-hop, rock, reggae, everything! Who wouldn’t want another set from Cimafunk?
Nicole Atkins is a rare bird. She’s a Nashville pro who’s ready to rock out. Her set was at once tight and loose like a good Rolling Stones concert. I spotted Philly locals Meaghan Kyle, Ryan Williams, and Imani Roach supplying backing vocals at stage-left. Her band was a rock and roll quintet with her as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Their blend of pop-rock and bluesy rock and roll hit the spot after a set of super-dancey funk. Her voice soared above the crowd at the Marina Stage, as she switched from a Fender Jazzmaster (a model I own, coincidentally) to a Fender Acoustasonic Jazzmaster. I particularly liked a tune called “Garbage of Eden.” They closed with an epic righteous cover of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Should Never Be,” proving that she and her group is on top of their game right now.
Shovels and Rope, a duo featuring Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst from South Carolina, set up on the River Stage to close the festival. They resemble the White Stripes with Trent on guitar and Hearst on drums. But each had more to offer than what you could see immediately. They both employed synths attached to the guitar or the keyboard the Hearst played with her right hand while keeping a beat with her right on the snare and her foot the bass drum. Eventually, they settled in and Hearst riffed on the band’s name: “Shovels and Rope:” it’s all you need to dig a hole for yourself and to get back out again.” They had released an album years ago with that title and decided to keep it for the band’s name later on when they started touring. They wowed the crowd, as well as me and Liv. I’m a fan. Get yourself some Shovels and Rope.
With that, the weekend of sun and music had ended. Crowds filtered out to their cars and trains and Ubers to go back across the bridge to Philly or back out into the wilds of New Jersey. Tito’s Vodka packed up their merch tent. Police stood around trying to look useful. Performers and audience members, alike, wiped the sweat from their brow, packed up their cooler and lawn chair, and went home to face another week.
Connect with WXPN