The 25th Annual XPoNential Music Festival – Review & Photos
Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
XPoNential Music Festival :: 7.27-29.18 :: Camden County, NJ
View Jake’s gallery after his review.
After 25 years, the 2018 XPoNential Music Festival provided a product that was arguably its strongest to date. The crowd’s and performers’ appreciation for a beloved radio station has grown over the years with a ferocious veracity. The immense gratitude for 88.5 FM poured out via XPN pins adorning hats, David Dye throwback tees and most acts taking a moment to thank Helen Leicht, Kristen Curtis, Dan Reed, Talia Schlanger, or the slew of other familiar voices that heard over the airwaves most days. After 25 years, it was simply another summer love fest for the greatest radio station in the universe, WXPN 88.5 FM.
Friday evening shore traffic landed most of us in Camden by the time Brooklyn’s The National Reserve was well into their set on the river stage. The five-piece band offered up some gritty southern rock that had echoes of Drive-By Truckers. Vocalist and leader Sean Walsh invited up a second drummer, his buddy Anthony LoGerfo from Lukas Nelson + Promise of the Real. They launched into the slow-burning “California,” and brightened up the grey skies just a bit more. M.A.K.U. Soundsystem’s combo of co-vocalists Juan Ospina and Liliana Conde made rhythms with the spirits of immigrants past. Conde said the third song was about moving mountains as they unleashed a deeply rhythmic jam called “Nunca Fácil.” The song pulsed forward anchored by Ospina’s bass playing and high jumps as Conde rattled off lyrics with a ferocious Spanish tongue.
If you closed your eyes you could hear Willie Nelson coming through in his son Lukas Nelson’s songs and vocal tendencies. Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real offered a rock-meets-country flair on their upbeat song “Fool Me Once.” The guitar and Nelson’s nuanced vocals helped the work week disappear in a little two-step amble. His spirited version of “Something Real” was raucous. Nelson’s fantastic band came flying around the corner tearing open the meat of the set as he showed separation between father and son and did some serious kick jumps. The band closed with something new called “Turn Off The News,” which set the right attitude for the weekend.
The Nashville-based trio Bermuda Triangle features Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes with guitarist Becca Mancari and banjo player Jesse Lafser for an exploration into the softer side of music. Howard took a backseat on vocal duties, opting to finger pluck an upright bass as Mancari sang and played guitar on the opening song “Tear Us Apart.” It’s clear that Howard is exploring something rather different with Bermuda Triangle, but her signature vocal range and curling lip appeared slightly on “Mind Body Soul,” as she took over vocals and guitar. The songs are folksy and each offers some unique points like the combo of electronic sampling and the acoustic instruments; however, here it felt underdeveloped and needing some road time before the sound matures. The trio ended abruptly as the sky threatened rain and the festival cut short the outdoor potion on Friday canceling The Lone Bellow’s set altogether.
Sylvan Esso set a perfect mood as the outdoor venue had just been evacuated due to an approaching thunderstorm. BB&T Pavilion was already supposed to play host to the Durham-based duo and to accommodate the weather the party started a bit earlier than planned. Nick Sanborn on samplers and electronic gadgets pumped out beats and noises while Amelia Meath on vocals danced, kicked and sung around the stage. The pair surrounded by a nonstop crisscross of lights and smoke opened with “Sound,” and then proceeded to rip through both their albums. They finished out with an incredible three-song combo of “Hey Mami” and then dropped seamlessly into “H.S.K.T.” before offering a WXPN favorite, “Radio.”
David Byrne stole the show on the first day of the festival (not fair, I know). Unfairly, I found myself and others comparing every other performance to his the rest of the weekend. The minimal stage design featured chain hung from rigging creating shackle walls which blocked all stage production muddle. Gone were all the mics, stands, amplifiers, cords, plugs, power strips and monitors. As the chains raised and lowered, the sound they made was piped through the concert creating not only a visual cleanliness but an auditory wash of white noise.
Byrne emerged through the back wall and sat holding a brain, pondering it like a Shakespearean character during the opening song “Here” off 2018’s American Utopia. From there the set leaped into action as Byrne was joined by a dozen barefoot musicians clad in grey suits. The 66-year old never stopped moving and his band didn’t miss a beat. Byrne filled the stark stage with choreographed dance moves and the dreamlike use of dramatic lighting. They projected blue lights simulating TV as Byrne starred into the distance singing one off of his St. Vincent collaboration, the horn-driven “I Should Watch TV.” Byrne’s new songs blended perfectly with hits as “Everybody’s Coming to My House” butted up against two Talking Heads classics “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once In A Lifetime.” The latter two songs had young and old up and grooving to the master performer. Byrne ended the show with a one-two punch starting with the dance-friendly sing-along “Burning Down The House.” The finale was a moving cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” written about people of color who have been killed by police. “I saw her perform this at the Women’s March — it is sadly as relevant now as it was then. We have updated it, and will continue to do so,” said Byrne before pounding drums while leading a call-and-response where he and his band mates shouted the names of men and women killed by law enforcement. The moment was moving and well positioned and left me in awe of Byrne.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is far from Philadelphia. Tell that to Jupiter Bokondji — founder of afrobeat-meets-psych-funk band Jupiter & Okwess. They touched down for their first time in the Philadelphia region this past Saturday to huge accolades from the crowd. Bokondji and his band kept a steady churn of rhythms and bounce between drums, guitar and bass as they cranked out “Benanga,” one of the more socially conscious grooves off Kinsonic, their sophomore album. The sun-drenched crowd was their feet despite the blazing sun at the marina stage, joining in the contagious energy and outfits witnessed onstage.
Joshua Ostrander held the “NO Cursing sign “ up for a second before launching into a clean version of the title track off Mondo Cozmo’slatest release, Your Motherfucker. The Bucks County-born, L.A.-based Mondo Cozmo frontman joked with Helen Leicht how 88.5 can’t play their track on the radio. Ostrander proudly revealed his Sixers jersey and talked about sending Leicht songs since he was a kid. The music of Mondo Cozmo is filled with emotion and features a combination of guilty sound pleasures. The melodies of “Hey Steven’s” wrapped Ostrander’s vocals in Drew Beck’s guitar and James Gordon’s synth, while the song’s chorus of “Everybody wants it, everybody needs it” helped back up my earlier guilty pleasure sentiment. Ostrander repeatedly thanked the crowd and WXPN before ripping through a tight but rousing version of “Tonight Tonight.” He gave a bit of background before playing “Plastic Soul” saying ”I wrote it the weekend David Bowie died and I dedicated it to him,” before jamming for an extra three minutes on the end of the song. He invited out his buddy local musician Chris Archibald or as Ostrander called him “the best songwriter in Philadelphia.” The two harmonized on “Shine,” while building drums, streaming bass and soaring guitar carried their harmonies. You could hear shades of Joshua Tree-era U2 in the set-ending song “Automatic.” The set ended with Ostrander jumping off Tolman’s bass drum and saying “Here’s to 25 more year’s XPN.”
Courtney Marie Andrews played a left-of-country set to the Marina stage crowd that ended with one fantastic bit of guitar work on “May Your Kindness Remain,” showing her left hand spoke a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. Femi Kuti and the Positive Force offered a more traditional view of afrobeat and where the morning saw the unconventional, but powerful showing of Jupiter & Okwess, the late afternoon belonged to the regal air that Kuti and his 12-piece band provided. From the opening horn blasts of “Truth Don Die” to the dizzying ending movement and frantic dance on “No Place for My Dream, “ Kuti and the Positive Force shined.
Oakland is near and dear to Fantastic Negrito (Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz), whose musical connections to the blues, R&B and roots rock are strong. With a crowd at most 100 deep in a 30,000 person venue, he joked that it was just like playing in his living room before he ran through the heavily funk dipped soul crooner “The Duffler.” Fantastic Negrito’s secret weapon is guitarist Tomas Salcedo, who clearly had chops to lead world decimation with only his ax. Salcedo turned points of “Transgender Biscuits” into noise rock near The Mars Volta level. When Negrito’s guitar died before a love song he quickly moved on dropping a funky dance number fittingly called “Bullshit Anthem.” He explained that “Plastic Hamburgers” was loosely about Americans’ diet gone wrong. The band heavily shredded through the garage rock hit. Negrito has clearly embraced the original American music, the blues, and added his life experience to it creating a not-to-miss live show. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was a perfect sunset accompaniment for lounging on a warm July evening. The magnificent seven made magic on stage as they proudly played “Santiago” and “Mad” off their 2018 release and rattled through timeless classics like the much older “St. James Infirmary.”
Sturgill Simpson is a badass guitar player. He’s the outlaw country version of Warren Haynes’ younger self who absolutely shredded and jammed his way through his set. He opened on “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” from his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This slow-burning song built into a climax of raging guitar work. Midway through his set, he unleashed a glorious “Brace for Impact (Live A Little).” His no-holds-barred approach saw him knocking over mic stands and proving that he and his band were incredibly tight. “Keep It Between The Lines” offered a low-end chug of bass and drums that finished with Simpson’s bourbon smooth delivery and vocals. That backline power trio of bass, drums and guitar pushed a continuous wall of sound that made guts churn and knees buckle. His long jams and smoking guitar solos were just what the evening needed.
Local favorite The War On Drugs, surrounded by triangles of light, led their native crowd into a bouncing version of “Brothers,” off Slave Ambient. The band led by Adam Granduciel focused on the material off the band’s last two albums Lost In A Dream and A Deeper Understanding. We were treated to “Arms Like Boulders” with added brass accents from guests the Preservation Hall Jazz Band before they wrapped up the set with an extended and jammed-out version of “Under the Pressure,” finishing Saturday in style.
Lo Moon welcomed the Sunday afternoon set with a gentle and airy bit of ethereal rock that laid the groundwork for a carefree mood. Matt Lowell thanked WXPN DJ Bruce Warren for playing their first record before ending their set with “Loveless.” Its glorious building drum sections combined with the echo effects on Lowell’s vocals keeping the song floating throughout the venue.
Mt. Joy, another Philadelphia band gone west, treated the marina stage to a fantastic and soulful version of “Julia” that segued seamlessly with shimmering key work from Jackie Miclau into a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” High school friends Matt Quinn and Sam Cooper crooned and strummed in a smooth style that made the cover their own. They wrapped it in a bit of California soul before letting Cooper’s guitar guide the band seamlessly back into “Julia” for the “How long, how long” section.
Phoebe Bridgers explored the borders of modern folk-rock. Her sound was part Pacific Northwest harmonies a la Fleet Foxes mixed with touches of Polica. Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger In The Alps, last year and focused mostly on that album at the festival. However, she did debut her new song “Steamroller,” before opening up on Gillian Welch’s “Everything is Free.”
It’s funny to see a crowd ravenous about a band that focuses on harmonies. Welcome to the mindset of the WXPN fan base when it comes to Darlingside. The Boston band gave the audience what they wanted, opening with the four-part harmonies and finger-plucked strings of “Singularity.” They then launched into “Eschaton,” whose electronic beginnings dissolved into the bands vocal and strummed builds. Auyon Mukharji introduced his fellow band mates Don Mitchell, David Senft and Harris Paseltiner with each of their current drinking or not drinking coffee status.
Tank & The Bangas, an NPR Tiny Desk Concert winner hailing from New Orleans, elevated the energy late in the afternoon. Lead by the ever charismatic and full of expressions, Tarriona “Tank” Ball, who mesmerized the river stage crowd, they ran through a gamut of musical styles offering us her soulful song and spoken word on her 2018 single “Smoke.Netflix.Chill.” They touched down on some modern hip-hop with a cover of Anderson .Paak’s “Come Down” that was reworked to fit Ball’s tendencies to spoken word. A call-and-response broke out several times between Ball and her two female singers that worked beautifully as Tank & The Bangas made the already fantastic track their own. To mix it up even more, they finished with a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The abundance of running toddlers chased by parents grew on Sunday as Hiss Golden Messenger’s set began. By day three, music must have sounded like freedom to their innocence as frontman MC Taylor and his accompanying band talked about playing the Newport Folk Fest the day before, where the band joined singer Mavis Staples. They tore through “I Am The Song” off 2017’s Hallelujah Anyhow. The harmonica and guitar fuzz faded into one another on “Gulfport.” Taylor introduced his four-piece band and told each one that he loved them before saying, “We’re gonna come out with a bang here, so feel free to boogie.” This led into an especially spirited version of “Southern Grammar,” ending the set. The Blind Boys of Alabama played as folks exited the festival with the thoughts of what the next 25 years of WXPN will bring.
Let’s hope it’s many, many more days like these.