Monday, July 27, 2009

XPoNential Function, Part One

Ever since attending my first XPN festival last year, I haven't been able to shut up about it. If you've been reading One Note Ahead recently, you know I spent a lot of time impatiently anticipating this year's event -- and did it ever deliver! But wait a minute; maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about. WXPN is a public radio powerhouse located in my fair city of Philadelphia and now heard worldwide thanks to the internet. Every year, XPN hosts a huge music festival which is currently known as the XPoNential Music Festival and takes place across the Delaware River from Philly on the beautiful Camden, New Jersey waterfront (yes, that's right: there is beauty to be found in Camden). Like XPN itself, the festival brings together an impossibly diverse array of musical genres including rock, blues, country, folk, soul, hip-hop, and no, not "pop" as in Lady Gaga! And just as XPN gives its members a lot for a small amount of money, XPN does the same for festival attendees, whether they're members or not. Of course I am a member, so I get all sorts of perks like meet and greets with certain artists and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages with unlimited refills -- oh-so-helpful in the dead of summer!

Even before it began, this year's festival was noticeably different from last year's. The economic recession prompted XPN to shorten it from four days to three. The lineup was decidedly edgier. Now that the fest is over, I can say these were good changes. A shorter festival meant the lineup had to be more focused in terms of quality. As for the edginess, I'll be honest: as much as I loved last year's event, I did feel that it was a bit safe overall and I feared it was reflective of a comfortable medium on XPN's part. This year's lineup helped to restore my faith in XPN as a station with some teeth to it. Besides, the edgier lineup suited the times well. Along those lines, there was magic in the air throughout most of last year's event, but with the malaise and disillusionment of 2009, I wondered if that magic would still be there. I needn't have worried one bit.

And now, the specifics of what I experienced and feel inclined to report:

Day One: Friday, July 24th, 2009

It's a delicate balance, having to prepare for blazing sunshine and the possibility of thunderstorms in the same day! I got it half right, at least. And may I just say, if you go to this festival, bring your own reusable bottle and your own hand sanitizer! I learned those lessons last year, but I'm profoundly happy to have put those lessons to use this year. If you need some other tips, contact me.

I have to question the wisdom of opening the festival with the laid-back Brazilian jazz band Minas. Maybe they're usually more energetic and this was not a representative performance; all I know is that they were good at what they did, but they hardly brought the kind of excitement you'd want to kick off a festival with. It would have made more sense to put them on later.

Minas' set took place on the Marina Stage, which is the smaller of the two festival stages. (As far as I'm concerned, the Kids Corner stage does not exist. I'd have been all over it if I were 20 years younger, though.) The first artist to perform on the vast, spacious River Stage was longtime ONA favorite Matt Duke. How awesome is it that he's come so far over the past few years? Matt performed with a setup similar to that of his Kingdom Underground CD release last year: a four-piece band backing him, with the recently ONA-approved Tim McGlone on acoustic guitar and Matt giving us the rare treat of his electric guitar work. Matt just rocked. No quiet songs, but all the aggressive material from his current album. I especially appreciated this version of "Walk If Off" because it was furious without being disconcerting; I've always found the recorded version difficult to listen to because it is a little too crazed. Typically for Matt, you had no idea how or what he was going to sing or play, his stage mannerisms were equally unpredictable, and he found amusing replacements for the cuss words in his songs -- this WAS a family-friendly event and it WAS being broadcast on the radio! He also turned the lead spotlight over to Tim for one song, McGlone's catchy "Hollywood." During this number, a friend of mine was grooving along but nevertheless leaned over to me and said, "Not as good as Duke!" Well.....who is? I enjoyed the set quite a lot, but another friend of mine who listened on the radio thought Matt "sounded awful." I'd like to think she was just listening on an awful radio.

Annuals. I knew the name and not much else. I was curious enough to want to see them. Upon learning that I'd never seen them before, a friend of mine who works for XPN (and made some good recommendations last year!) told me Annuals are amazing and described them as sounding like "The Warped Tour if it took place in Texas." They're actually based in North Carolina, but my friend's description did put my curiosity over the top. The sextet combined indie-rock, country, harmony pop, folk, and I swear I heard some Latin elements somewhere in there! Yet they had their own identifiable sound. Their set was just outrageous, with layers of dramatic voices and instruments and powerfully intense playing, all offset by frontman Adam Baker's offbeat sense of humor. I met them afterwards and briefly talked with some of them. They seemed very nice -- but things aren't always what they seem, right? Well, a few hours later I was standing by the river and I saw Annuals leaving, so I just looked their way and smiled. It was quite dark and I wasn't sure they could even see me, but one of them actually said to me, "Have a good night, man!" Talented, friendly, and their latest CD Such Fun borrows its artwork from Bob Ross, who inspired me to become a painter as a kid and whom I dressed up as for Halloween in 1995. This is all just too cool.

I was familiar with the instrumental surf-rock stylings of Los Straitjackets, but I'd never seen them in person. Their stage act is ridiculous, but in a good way. Wearing Mexican wrestlers' masks and matching suits, their coordinated stage moves were often interrupted by long ramblings delivered in fast-tongued Spanish -- broken up with some archly-pronounced American English for good measure. There was really nothing new or original about what they played; you can go back to The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Santo & Johnny, and countless other guitar-rock pioneers to get the basis of their sound. But Los Straitjackets are good musicians and fun showmen. And they played the theme from The Munsters, which is only one of the coolest TV themes ever!

During Los Straitjackets' set, we experienced what XPN veteran David Dye so cleverly called "setus interruptus." The possibility of a thunderstorm was now a reality, and we had to go running for cover. The XPN festival is an all-weather event, you see; it would pretty much take a tornado to derail it completely. After the storm broke (or at least we thought it did!), Los Straitjackets returned to their set and their shtick, the dark night sky finally rolled in, and a beautiful post-storm breeze dominated for the rest of the night.

For me, the setting was just right to head on over to the Marina Stage and rock out to Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. Here's a band I'd considered seeing for quite some time and I'd resolved to finally get it done at the festival. I'm glad I did. Their country-infused rock 'n' roll sound is just wondrous at its best, their super-tight playing and Sarah's familiar-yet-distinctive voice making it clear that they're not just another bar band. They also have a knack for balancing their original material with unusual cover choices; it takes a special band to open a set with Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm's "You're Out Walking The Streets Tonight"! Meeting them afterwards, I found them to be every bit as fun and funny as they were on stage. Smart, too: Sarah had introduced a slowish number by saying that slow songs are a great way to get to know the person next to you, if you get her drift. Maybe so, but it was actually during a fast number that I found a new dancing partner, and I told Sarah as much after the show. "Did you meet someone?" asked Sarah with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, to which I replied, "I did! During 'Stop and Think It Over,' I believe." After getting over her enthusiasm, Sarah admonished, tongue somewhat in cheek, "Well: Stop! And think it over before you do anything."

Sage advice.

Robert Cray was the last act of the night, and I didn't want to end such a happy day and night with the blues! But I just missed the ferry back to Philly and had to wait for the next one, so I did hear his set and it did actually provide a strangely suitable soundtrack as I stood there by the river looking into the absolutely gorgeous night sky, watching the Philadelphia waterfront and skyscrapers in their illuminated glory.

And I don't even like skyscrapers.

Continued in Part Two.

And check out my accompanying photo album!

Missed the festival? Attended but want to relive it? Here you go:

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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