WXPN is the listener sponsored Triple A radio station associated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the finest stations of its kind in the United States. The station is known for treating its listeners as family, and toward that end WXPN has been throwing a summer weekend festival since 1994. In the beginning, it was called the Singer Songwriter Weekend, and it was held at Penns Landing, a beautiful outdoor venue right on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. A few years back, pending construction closed Penns Landing. The event’s name was changed to the XPoNential Music Festival, and moved across the river to Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ, an equally beautiful riverfront venue.
There are two stages at the festival, the main or River Stage, and the smaller Marina Stage. Beginning on Friday night, popular artists from the station’s playlist alternate sets through Sunday evening. I was only able to attend the Saturday festivities, and since most of the artists that I really wanted to see were playing on the River Stage, that’s where I focused my attention for the day. People gathered in front of the stage in varying numbers, while on the half-bowl hillside facing the stage, hundreds were set up with their beach chairs.
Between Jersey shore traffic on the Garden State Parkway, and Six Flags Great Adventure traffic on the N.J. Turnpike, the trip which would normally take me not more than 90 minutes clocked in at nearly twice that. I was happy to arrive just in time to see the first band of the day that I really had some interest in. Brooklyn’s young Yeasayer played a compelling set that blended electronica, psych, and tribal rhythms. They opened the set with two promising songs from their upcoming new album. Guitarist Anand Wilder is handling a few more lead vocal chores now, and I enjoyed his more pop-oriented songs.
Next came the best set of the day from Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3. Wynn is an indie legend, going back to his days in the Dream Syndicate, and he’s put together a great band featuring drummer Linda Pitmon, bassist Dave DiCastro, and the brilliantly inventive lead guitarist Jason Victor. Together the played a wonderfully intense set that transported me back to the lower Manhattan clubs where this music was born.
The Bacon Brothers were up next. It seemed like a good time to seek out the facilities and find some dinner. One interesting observation though. Just before the set, Kevin Bacon walked passed me surrounded by an entourage of about ten people. Bringing up the rear, about 20 feet behind Kevin and by himself was brother Michael. It can’t be easy being a guy who’s connected to a movie star by one degree. I didn’t hear them play, but the cheesesteak was reasonably good.
Despite my disappointment in his most recent album, Back and Fourth, I am a fan of Pete Yorn. I think he has a great band, and some really melodic and powerful songs. So I was really looking forward to his set, and it did not disappoint. The highlight for me was the seasonally-appropriate “Last Summer,” which is the best song on the new album, and even better live. “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is) was another strong effort, and one that I caught with my video camera.
As darkness descended on Camden, it was time for They Might Be Giants. I’d heard a lot about them over the years, and I know people who are die-hard fans. I am totally unfamiliar with their music, but I thought I’d give it a try. I’ll just say that I appreciate what they’re doing, and they definitely drew the biggest crowd of the day to the front of the stage, but it’s just not for me. They are, in a nutshell, cute and quirky. I hate cute and quirky. If you like them, fine. It’s just not my thing.
To close out the evening, was the band that I’d waited for all day. If you’ve read some of my past articles, you know that I’m a big fan of the Hold Steady. I think that they are one of America’s greatest bands, and they feature a great live show led by one of the most unusual and charismatic front men in the game, Craig Finn. As usual, they had the crowd of devotees in front of the stage pogoing and and singing along from the start. The WXPN audience tends to be a little older than the average rock and roll crowd, and there were definitely people who were not prepared for what was going on on that stage.
It wasn’t the best Hold Steady set I’ve seen. They’re off the road and not in mid-season form, but even at that it was better than nearly any band you’re going to see these days. The opening barage of “Positive Jam,” “Stuck Between Stations,” and “Sequestered In Memphis” blew away any doubts that the Hold Steady are the real deal. Finn was all over the place, leaping about and gesturing frenetically as is his wont. I managed to catch the wonderful “Cattle and the Creeping Things” with my camera.
Twelve songs in, the wind began to come up, and it began to rain lightly, which made it a particularly effective scene for guitarist Tad Kubler’s blazing solo on “Lord I’m Discouraged.” As it turned out, that was the last song of the night. The rain got harder, the band left the stage for “safety reasons,” and I wandered around Camden trying to figure out where I’d parked my car. As it turned out, I’d parked it right next to the adjacent Susquehanna Bank Center, and I arrived there just in time to observe the Toby Keith fans that were emerging from his show there. Chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.” filled the air. It’s a strange world.