Live Music: XPoNential Music Festival, Part One

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

It was a sweltering hot July weekend when beloved Philadelphia radio station WXPN brought the 10th annual XPoNential Music Festival across the river to Wiggins Park on the Camden, NJ waterfront. Not even the breeze from the Delaware provided much of a respite. Fortunately, the music on stage over the course of two days (the festival begins on Friday, but I was only able to catch the last two days) proved to be more than a match for the intemperate weather.

The main stage activities began on Saturday with a band that I was totally unfamiliar with. Two of the four members of Harper Blynn are from Philadelphia, and their set was characterized by strong songwriting and powerful vocals. That’s what getting there early is all about. You start out the day knowing nothing about the opening band, and you walk away a fan. Harper Blynn’s debut album, The Loneliest Generation, was released in May.

Nicole AtkinsOn the other hand, I am very familiar with the wonderful Nicole Atkins. She is a native of the Jersey shore, and was a presence in the Asbury Park music scene (of which I am a part), until she decamped, as so many have, to Brooklyn. Nicole is a terrific songwriter, and possessed of a powerful voice. She’s got a new album coming out in January called Mondo Amore, and her set included several songs from the album, including the hard driving “You Come To Me.” Frankly, when I noticed that Nicole was sans keyboards for the first time in her band, I had my doubts. But guitarist Irina Yalkowsky handled the sometimes complex arrangements with ease, and brought a new rock and roll energy to the band. Besides, any band that can cover a song (“Vitamin C”) by German cult legends Can is ok in my book.

Hamilton Leithauser of The WalkmenI didn’t know what to expect from the Walkmen, but they ended up delivering one of my favorite sets of the weekend. I was familiar, like most people, with their alternative classic “The Rat,” but not much of their other work. Led by the very strong vocalist Hamilton Leithauser, the band powered their way through a set that included “All Hands and the Cook,” and “Louisiana” from their 2006 album A Hundred Miles Off, and songs from their new album, Lisbon (out in September on Fat Possum), like “Juveniles,” and the beautiful “Stranded.” The return of the horn section with which the band has worked in the past was a definite bonus, and the sound of the new songs marks a very interesting shift in direction.

Ira Kaplan of Yo La TengoAs you might expect, Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo played the most eclectic set of the festival. It ranged from gentle, whispered ballads, to tuneful power pop, to flat-out rock and roll. And if off the hook was what you were looking for, and who wasn’t, Yo La Tengo delivered the festival highlight when they were joined on stage by the horn section of Philadelphia’s treasured Sun Ra Arkestra for an unbelievable deconstruction of the Brian Wilson classic “Little Honda.” The extended jam left the incredulous audience gasping for breath.

Jon Leventhal and Rosanne Cash

And then for something completely different, it was time to add some country music royalty to the mix. Rosanne Cash and her top notch band, led by Cash’s husband, guitarist Jon Leventhal, delivered a strong set which drew primarily from Cash’s most recent album, 2009’s The List. That album is compromised of songs that appeared on a list of 100 essential country songs that was given to her by her father. The set in Camden included List classics like Don Gibson’s “Sea of Hearbreak,” on which Leventhal filled in for Bruce Springsteen who appears with Cash on the recorded version. Cash opined that if there was a 101st song on the list, it might very well be the sultry “Ode to Billy Joe,” and demonstrated the veracity of that claim with a splendid cover. Personally, I was happy that she included her 1981 hit “Seven Year Ache,” a song that I’ve always loved.

James Felice of The Felice BrothersI’ll make no bones about it. I think that the Felice Brothers are one of America’s greatest bands. There is no act currently prowling the stage that brings more truth to the proceedings. They have an uncanny knack for taking songs whose lyrics tackle desperation, drug addiction, and death, and somehow presenting them up in an joyous, slapdash, altogether endearing manner. The band had made a long drive from Louisville, KY, where they had performed the night before, to get to Camden, and their weariness was apparent. But somehow they used it to fuel the fire and up the intensity a few notches. The raucous set, which included the favorites “Run Chicken,” “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” and “Frankie’s Gun,” created a frenzy in the audience that nearly matched that on stage. The Felice Brothers sent everyone home happy with a rousing cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands.”

All of the fabulous photos here were taken by David Simchock, and are © David Simchock. Dave’s a good friend to me, and to Popdose, and he’s a great photographer. He has many more terrific photos at his website, so please take a few minutes to check them out.

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