The XPoNential Festival is a three day event sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s mega radio station WXPN, and it has certainly grown over the years. Recently, it has been held in Camden’s waterfront Wiggins Park, which is also adjacent to the BB&T Pavilion– a huge covered amphitheater with ample lawn space, similar in design to Philly’s Mann Center. It’s been years since I’ve attended, but this year I was able to catch the action on Saturday, July 23rd, and the fest left plenty of vivid memories, both musical and non-musical.
Wiggins Park has two stages– the River Stage and Marina Stage– and acts alternate such that there is very little downtime; or at least that was how it was supposed to transpire that blazing hot afternoon. The area was packed, and attendees kept themselves hydrated with plenty of water and beer (one IPA was rated 9% alcohol content). Depending on where you were located, some refreshing breezes wafting off the Delaware River offered just a touch of relief. Upon arrival, I caught the end of a soaring set from New Orleans’ rock-soul jam heavy band, the Revivalists. They have a hint of reggae in their sound, and the crowd was swaying to their energetic vibe.
Then it was over to the Marina Stage to catch rising folksters, Cambridge, Maryland-based Darlingside, who charmed the throngs both with their banter and songs. This quartet mixes electric and acoustic string instruments (violin, mandolin, cello, electric bass and both six and 12-stringed guitars). They gather around one microphone, bluegrass style, to deliver gorgeous harmonies. The crowd was intrigued from the outset, and after their third song, “Good For You,” one band member said he didn’t know what to compare this to, maybe a boxer given cold towels around his neck and sprayed in the face with water. And then he quipped, “We’re not at all athletic.” Later, during band member introductions, they all pointed out their favorite citrus fruit. This is a band that can charm whether speaking to the audience or playing their uplifting music. After each successive tune, the applause grew louder, culminating in an instantaneous standing ovation.
The next act up were the Felice Brothers on the River Stage. The six piece unit had their hillbilly-rock vibe going for the first four tunes from their new Life in the Dark album, but during the second song the sound shorted out for a few seconds. And then, it all went quiet (the first of several unexpected things to happen that day). But rather than walk off stage and head for the van, they walked off stage and into the crowd to continue playing unplugged. They began with “This Land is Your Land” and ended with “Frankie’s Gun,” but unfortunately, I wasn’t close enough to take it all in. Let’s give kudos to the Felice Brothers for their undaunted spirit.
The blues-rock trio the Record Company took to the Marina Stage, where they were greeted by an immense audience standing both in front and back of the stage, given the outage next door. Frontman Chris Vos introduced the band by saying, “We’re The Record Company and we play rock ‘n’ roll.” Reminiscent at times of vintage power trios like Cactus and Grand Funk Railroad, these guys know how to get the crowd shaking, with old school guitar, scorching lap steel and occasional harmonica. It was a powerful, energetic set that seemed to come at just the right time. For too long, there was a gap in live, amplified music. The audience was primed by their set to catch some mind-blowing soloing from the surprisingly contemporary Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the River Stage.
As I made my way there, a bolt of lightning crossed the Philadelphia skyline across the river. Light rain began to fall, which seemed to make the band play even more aggressively. As the clouds darkened and the tune ended, the announcement came from the stage, “There’s lightning in the area. This storm should blow through quickly.” But, he was only half right. All hell broke loose with wind and rain, forcing the fans to crowd into the many vendor tents. About ten minutes later, the storm seemed to have passed. I changed out of my completely soaked shirt and headed back to the stage, seeing Preservation Hall members on the back of the stage just chomping at the bit waiting to resume their set. A second drenching storm burst in. It seemed to rain only right over the festival as the Phillies, who were playing only 3 miles away, had no rain delay that afternoon. These storms shut down music on both stages for the remainder of the afternoon, meaning that Josh Ritter and David Wax Museum were unable to play.
During the delay, the crowd stayed remarkably poised and the communal spirit carried all through. One couple even provided some entertainment by dancing in the rain. Most had incentive to stay as they were holding tickets to see the headliners, Gary Clark Jr. and Alabama Shakes, at the BB&T Pavilion.
I took my time getting to the big venue and really didn’t catch enough of Chicano Batman to comment on their set. Soon there was yet another surprise, as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was given some time to dazzle the fest-goers with their amazing musicianship and New Orleans party music. We were then treated to the guitar playing of Gary Clark Jr. His style is more about expressive layers of sound than tons of notes, and while he has been hailed as “the new Hendrix” or Steve Ray Vaughan, his approach does not rely on stage antics, and blues is really only one of his styles. All forms of music, from R&B, soul and gospel, find their way into Clark’s music. At times his vocals sounded like Al Green. The video screens did a great job of zooming in on Clark’s hands and one sequence had him effectively playing a slide guitar by just holding his fingers together. A couple of his elongated solos really transported me to another place. The audience rose to their feet at several points during his explosive set.
Relative to the performance I witnessed at the Mann Center last year, Brittany Howard and her Alabama Shakes put on a much more soulful show here at XPoNential. She played the tunes the audience came to hear: “Hold On,” “Miss You,” “Don’t Wanna Fight,” “Gimme All Your Love” and many more. Perched on the lawn, I was impressed by the clarity of the sound and a bit less impressed with the video, which didn’t provide glimpses of the other band members. The cameras were riveted on Brittany Howard. Yes, she is the show, but the band was laying down some nice grooves. Howard played guitar on all but two or three of the tunes in their hour plus set, and her emotive vocals never cease to satisfy and thrill– anything but disappoint. The last two acts lived up to expectations on a day where the unexpected threatened to steal the entire spotlight.
– Jim Hynes