Dancing Beside The Delaware River: XPoNential Music Festival 2017 – Review & Photos
Words & Images by: Jake Krolick
XPoNential Music Festival :: 7.28-30.17 :: Camden County, NJ
View Jake’s gallery after his review.
The World Café’s David Dye said it best, “You want fake news, how about today’s weather report?” The week leading up to the 2017 XPoNential Music Festival was filled with nervous energy as reports of a weekend-long rain event dominated local news. Instead, the festival experienced a mere 10 minutes of sprinkles Friday evening and then the best weather seen at the event in years.
In a time when many simply needed an escape from reality, WXPN offered up a wonderful experience packed to the brim with music and camaraderie hard found in this crazy world. By Monday morning we all felt like we had just been through a group cleansing. From Conor Oberst to the Drive-By Truckers, the entire lineup offered up note after note of pure bliss.
With much of the festival moved inside to the BB&T Pavilion, the normal lazy vibes and classic WXPN hospitality went out the window. If you’re a fan of The Decemberists then their collaboration with female singer and multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney called Offa Rex would have charmed you. Chaney smoothed out the edges of Colin Meloy’s vocals with her own poignant voice. She squeezed her harmonium as the band whipped through variety old folk and mining songs off their new album Queen Of Hearts. Before they finished they tossed us a Decemberists tune, a pleasant version of the song, “Rox In The Box.”
Conor Oberst had plenty to say Friday evening and he caught me and much of the crowd by surprise midway into his set. His banter included being stuck in the Holland tunnel, a dedication of “Cape Canaveral” to Neil deGrasse Tyson, and how he opened for Wilco in 2001. During “Train Under Water” the jamming increased and it was clear he benefited from having members of The Felice Brothers as his backing band. Then Oberst uncorked a rant on President Donald Trump with a raging river of profanity and angst leading directly into “Roosevelt Room” off of 2009’s Other South album with The Mystic Valley Band. This song was a raging volcano of guitar work and movement that decimated the crowd and had everyone up and cheering in what would become the highlight of Friday. Oberst was so fired up that the following softer, piano-driven tune “Salutations” took on aggressive new pacing.
Not to be outdone, Wilco came on strong. Frontman Jeff Tweedy was in a fine mood, but much less talkative and more focused on music. Tweedy remarked, “You all look fantastic to me” before he led the crowd through 20 years of an ever-evolving landscape that is the music of Wilco. Opening with a powerful three song combo including “Random Name Generator” into “The Joke Explained” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Tweedy and the band dished out a fantastic set. By the “Art of Almost” guitarist Nels Cline had dug into his guitar and the jamming grew tremendously. On “Pickled Ginger” Cline was intensely involved in effects pedal work as things got weird on the Delaware River. After an amazing “Impossible Germany,” Tweedy announced that this was the first song WXPN had ever played of theirs before striking up
Saturday started grey and cool. Brooklyn-based musician Xenia Rubinos laid down an eclectic and moody jazz meets electronic soundtrack on the Marina Stage. Her music was hovering on the edge of irregularity but she balanced well with the early crowd. Foxygen’s orchestrations coming from a nine-piece backing band blasted through the festival grounds. Sam France and Jonathan Rado took us back to an older era with horns and soulful insanity. France was joined by backing vocalist Jackie Cohen, through most of the show as they focused on material from the band’s 2017 album Hang. France and Cohn managed some slick outfit changes to end the set formally dressed, but not before doing a little soft-shoe dance during “Up On A Hill.”
The Suffers packed the marina stage and had quickly become WXPN Fan darlings. Singer Kam Franklin concluded the set with a story about phones from another era before a family friendly hip-hop medley of the Three 6 Mafia’s “Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band blew away the clouds and carried out the sun on a bed of their time-tested New Orleans sound. Rhiannon Giddens fused genres with bluegrass, blues and folk while she expertly plucked banjo-filled tracks from her latest album, Freedom Highway.
Last year Strand Of Oaks leader Timothy Showalter took to the internet and defended WXPN and Philadelphia after Father John Misty’s J. Tillman ranted and cut his 2016 set short before taking to Twitter to battle about the appearance. It was fitting that Showalter began his own set this year with a cover of Father John Misty’s “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” “That’s some redemption for you XPN Fest,” said Showalter as he finished the cover. From there Strand Of Oaks and Showalter rocked hard and gushed love for the crowd. They backed right into a fast, but noticeably guitar heavy version of “Shut In” from 2014’s HEAL before uncorking the newer “Radio Kids” off 2017 album Hard Love. Showalter was grinning ear to ear as he began his largest hit to date “Goshen ’97” that finished with a festival-wide sing-along.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires showed why you’re never too old to electrify at the River Stage. The 67-year-old Screaming Eagle Of Soul shimmied and strutted his way around the stage playing tracks from all three of his studio albums. Dressed to impress in a red suit and bold skull belt buckle, Bradley elevated the already upbeat mood with “Love Bug Blues” off 2013’s Victim Of Love. Mid-song he busted James Brown’s old move of smoothly knocking over his mic stand just to yank it back up with the microphone cord. Bradley crooned on “Changes” before he wrapped it all up by tossing roses into the crowd.
Over at BB&T the evening was just warming up with L.A.’s Chicano Batman who has made Philadelphia and WXPN their East Coast home. It’s hard to not enjoy Austin’s veteran rock outfit Spoon. Frontman Britt Daniel and company have been at it now for almost a quarter century and don’t appear to be slowing. Saturday night Daniel noted that this was perhaps the biggest Philadelphia crowd Spoon had played to. It was hard not to groove to the hypnotic rhythms during “I Turn My Camera On” and the slow churning bump-and-grind of “Don’t You Evah.” Both made the crowd bounce before the band turned up the guitars on “Do You” and “The Underdog.” Before the set was over they offered up some new material with “Can I Sit Next To You,” where Jim Eno’s interposed beats shined, before moving into the title track from 2017’s Hot Thoughts.
Wearing a tie-dyed onesie and a grin, Sweet Spirit‘s frontwoman Sabrina Ellis told the Sunday crowd that she was hard to embarrass. She and her band then tore through 11 songs that lined up with Kyle Craft-meets-Courtney Barnett and featured duel guitars, bass and drums. WXPN has been pumping “The Power” for months so it worked as a perfect crowd awakening opener. With jet skiers and boats pulling up behind the stage Sweet Spirit carried rambunctious energy through until the set-closing “Take Me to a Party.” Adia Victoria’sversion of “howling shame” absolutely smoldered as it poured out into the hot sun. She was noticeably more vibrant and reactive to the crowd since I had seen her last. During “Head Rot” she was back-bending over the piano and it is clear her comfort levels on stage as well as chops on guitar are just beginning to take shape.
Blues legend David Bromberg announced that this was the largest festival attendance numbers he had ever seen as he mocked the inauguration figures of Sean Spicer. He then proceeded to shake the earth with one of the greatest versions of “Sharon” our masses had seen. After the chorus, Bromberg laid out parts for every instrument to solo – fiddle, bass, keys, and guitar. Five minutes into the song Bromberg exhibited his true mastery of the slide guitar. He reenacted a conversation between a man and woman. Bromberg spoke the man’s parts and he let his slide guitar take the woman’s. His guitar hit notes so subtly pitch-perfect that all that was heard was another human voice. It’s fairly unheard of to get an encore at the WXPN Festival, Bromberg earned his fully.
Hurray For The Riff Raff’s mastermind Alynda Lee Segarra introduced their set as “resistance music.” By the third song, “Hungry Ghost,” Segarra dropped the niceties and went for it. She tossed off her sunglasses and let loose in her YOUNG, LATIN, & PROUD shirt. However, it was the end of their set that really packed a punch with the trio of powerful songs including “Living in the City” and the smoldering “Pa’lante” that grew into a massive fist tossing message to the people to move forward and keep your heads up. The fitting follow up to that level of opposition song was with a cover of Bruce Springsteen and Segarra and the band launched into a spirited take on The Boss’ “Dancing in the Dark.”
“Who says you can’t freak out in the broad daylight?” said The Dream Syndicate’s acclaimed frontman Steve Wynn. Their performance was packed full of heavy electric guitar, new tracks from The Dream Syndicate’s upcoming album, and several old favorites. Wynn introduced “Out of my Head” saying “This is from a new Dream Syndicate record – I haven’t said that since Herbert Hoover was in the White House.” Clearly it was the day for the Marina Stage to be pummeled with phenomenal guitar players. Former Back Door Slam member Davy Knowles took the stage next to the chant of his first name. Like Wynn, Knowles also put on a guitar clinic playing tracks off his newest album, Three Miles from Avalon, Knowles finished up the final performance on the Marina Stage with a classic cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash “Almost Cut My Hair.”
Drive-By Truckers ended the festival with a massive message and some heavy southern rock. Their latest album, American Band is heavily rooted in the social and political turmoil brought on by a heated political climate. Not that the Drive-By Truckers haven’t always been a voice for the working man and spoke out against oppression. This band has been through nearly everything imaginable and has emerged a stronger, more sensitive group of remarkable musicians. What struck me most at the festival was their message. “It’s not a matter of left and right, of Republican and Democrat,” said Patterson Hood about the Black Lives Matter sign hanging from Jay Gonzalez’s keyboards. “It’s a matter of human dignity and human decency and loving your fellow human being whether they’re a man or a woman, no matter what they look like, no matter who they pray to. None of that really matters.” The band immediately launched into a heartfelt version of “What It Means” off their latest album.