Tuesday, July 15, 2008

XPoNential Value

Thousands of people converging on the Camden, NJ waterfront. Lines of food and beverage vendors and Port-A-Potties. A zero-tolerance policy for glass containers. Radio personalities seated behind fences, shouting excitedly into microphones. The sounds of rock, soul, blues, folk, hip-hop, and alternative pop filling the air. A sensitive, delicate-voiced singer/songwriter......rapping. What else could it possibly be but the 2008 XPoNential Music Festival, the current name of the annual shindig hosted by WXPN, a leading public radio station based in my fair city of Philadelphia, PA. Thursday and Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening. Loads of terrific live music for a terrifically low price, and a great opportunity to get sunburned in the process! This year was my first at the festival, and as an XPN member I enjoyed many perks, including the chance to meet certain artists whom non-members did not get the privilege of meeting. Top local acts and XPN favorites from other cities and countries graced two stages in Camden's enormous Wiggins Park, the large River Stage and the more intimate Marina Stage (there was also a Kids Corner stage). I didn't see every act, nor did I like every act I saw, but there was so much of interest at this year's event that I had to document some of the highlights for posterity. (Click on the links for images; I tried to post images directly to this blog, but they kept ruining the formatting.)

Day One: Thursday, July 10, 2008

Free for XPN members and Camden County residents (Camden County includes the City of Camden and many other municipalities in South Jersey). I didn't know what to expect, but I was getting into it and seeing a lot of familiar faces.

Kicking off the festival was Philly favorite Jim Boggia. I'd heard so much about this guy, yet I'd never seen him. After witnessing his powerhouse performance, in which he was supported by a mammoth 11-piece band, I had to ask myself HOW I'd never seen him before. An engaging performer with intriguing material, a soulful voice, and an irresistible sense of humor.

Image 1: When I met Jim Boggia, I told him he could call me either "SJ" or "Dibai." See how he signed my festival guide.

The Salvador Santana Band had me wondering if they'd be any good. See, Salvador is the son of Carlos; I'd hoped he wasn't just coasting on his famous name. I needn't have worried. Salvador's band delivered a high-energy fusion of hip-hop, funk, rock, and Latin dance music which attracted an impressively diverse crowd and had practically everyone from every imaginable demographic dancing. (Well, those who were physically incapable of dancing were probably nodding along!) Like his father, Salvador Santana knows the importance of surrounding his own talents with those of others. The Salvador Santana Band is truly an integrated unit in which the members trade moments in the spotlight, play off each other, and work together to bring on the good times.

Day Two: Friday, July 11, 2008

This was the day when I started thinking I didn't have the easygoing disposition necessary for a festival of this type and magnitude, and I seriously wondered whether I'd actually make it through all four days. But this was also the day that one of the food vendors told me I looked "chill." I am most definitely NOT a "chill" person, but this was such a "chill" festival that the, um, chills must have been rubbing off on me. This was also the day that I met beloved XPN deejay Matt Reilly, who was gearing up to leave Philly and go back to his former home of Austin, TX. Peace out, Matt.

The Brakes are Philly rock royalty. I'd seen them before about two years earlier and caught them on local TV recently, so my expectations were high for their festival set. Well, they didn't meet my expectations; they exceeded my expectations. A tight, solid band that put on a genuinely entertaining show and got the crowd (myself included) groovin' right along. I met most of them later on, and they were all very nice and truly appreciative.

Friday evening was my first time seeing the highly-touted Dar Williams, and she was a riot. If you like your brainy singer/songwriters to be hilarious on stage, you need to make it out to one of her shows. Being right across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, many artists referred to the city in which the festival took place as "Philly," but Dar Williams actually thanked the City of Camden for letting her call it Philly on several occasions! She was so charming and had such a fully realized stage presence that I keep forgetting she was the only one on stage.

As for Alejandro Escovedo, what word can I use to describe an artist whose arrangements included guitars that threatened to break the sound barrier and overdriven psychedelic cello solos? Oh, right: intense.

One Note Ahead readers know I like The Redwalls, and I saw them on the Marina Stage (my second time seeing them overall). I was especially taken by the personalities of the two brothers in the band, Logan and Justin Baren. Logan is the most prominent singer in the band, capable of a satisfyingly aggressive shout which gives his vocals a distinctive edge. Yet when I met the band afterwards, Logan was the silent one. He just sat there signing whatever people handed him but I never heard him talk to anyone and rarely saw him look at anyone. Mind you, he didn't come off as snobby; just withdrawn and perhaps shy. Conversely, Justin was quite personable. We fans were meeting the band under somewhat rushed, chaotic circumstances, but Justin was easygoing and took the time to talk with people who had something to say. Justin also struck me as the tough guy in the band, which I just had to respect, as I've had to play the role of "tough guy" many times in my own life.

Image 2: Logan Baren might not be the most talkative person, but he sure has a robust autograph. He almost shoved Jim Boggia's off the page!

Day Three: Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chill. That's the way I was truly feeling as this day progressed. I knew I'd have to come back on Sunday. Must have been something in the complimentary beverages available to XPN members. This was also the day that I had the pleasure of meeting David Dye, host of the nationally-broadcast public radio program World Cafe, which originates from XPN. And I made a few new friends as well. Always great to make new friends through music!

I was vaguely familiar with Wilmington, DE's The Spinto Band, so I checked them out. They played a fun style of indie rock, and even though they weren't the sort of band I could see myself becoming a huge fan of, I fondly remember trying to dance to their music while balancing the plate of hot food I was eating! (I didn't spill anything.) I had similar feelings about another popular local band, Fooling April: I couldn't see myself becoming a huge fan, but it was nice to see them.

A friend of mine who works at XPN was particularly keen to see two of the festival's acts, one of whom was Jesse Ruben. This friend of mine is quite fond of One Note Ahead favorites Matt Duke and Andrew Lipke, so I trust her judgment at least to a certain extent! In fact, I had seen Jesse perform a few songs at an XPN Philly Local concert in May, so I decided to try taking in a full set of his. He fits neatly into the singer/songwriter subgenre, the pre-blues John Mayer being an obvious influence; he has a good voice and a lot of strong material. In particular, his song "Point Me In The Right Direction" left me spellbound; its detailed story of a war veteran reminded me of an uncle who served in Vietnam and was never quite the same afterwards. Jesse was also eminently likeable, down-to-earth and personable on stage and off.

Image 3: Jesse Ruben signed my festival guide with a smiley face!

"She's basically Roy Orbison as a Jersey Girl, so I have no choice but to love her." That's how I described the fabulous Nicole Atkins to friends who were not familiar with her. I also told people that if I went to this festival and missed Nicole, I would not forgive myself. Even the most ardent advocates of forgiveness would have understood my sentiments if they'd seen Nicole and her band The Sea at the XPoNential Fest. Nicole Atkins & The Sea rocked. Yes, rocked. Nicole's music doesn't rock on record, nor does it always rock live. It seems to depend on the show; all I know is that she and her band laid down a heavier, more aggressive sound than I was used to hearing from them, while still retaining the focus on her sweet sweet melodies and her amazingly beautiful voice. It was loads of fun to stand right up front and have Nicole look down at me and smile whenever she caught me dancing; it was even more fun to watch her put her guitar down and rock out herself, her long brown hair and shiny blue dress creating a whirlwind of activity around her. I'd seen Nicole and The Sea once before at the top Philly venue World Cafe Live (which is actually located right next door to XPN and is named after David Dye's program). They didn't rock there, but they were wonderful all the same. Though I'd met her and talked with her after that show, I didn't expect her to recognize me at the festival. "That was three and a half months ago. She meets so many people. I mean, she might remember me, but I'm not holding my breath." So when I went to the meet and greet area and it was my turn in line, she smiled at me, gave me a hi-five, and said, "Hey, man! Good to see you again!" I replied, "So you remember me?" I still had my doubts, but she said, "Yeah......World Cafe Live, right?"

I think I was on Cloud Nine for the rest of the night.

Image 4: While waiting in line to talk to Nicole, I spotted her keyboardist Dan "Cashmere" Chen. Maybe it's because I used to play keyboards, but I am often drawn to keyboardists, and Dan is a damn good one. I asked him to sign my festival guide and his huge autograph hardly left any room for anyone else's! He must not be used to signing his autograph. Or maybe he just has a big ego!

And then there was Amos Lee. Soulful, bluesy, and just plain cool. Nothing more to say.

Day Four: Sunday, July 13, 2008

Exactly how much sleep was I not getting by this point? It was catching up to me, I tell you what. Still, I wanted to see some of the acts who were scheduled for Sunday, and I also wanted to see some friends who were planning on being there. So off I went for one last day!

Back Door Slam are the heirs to Cream's throne. The young British trio gave us a healthy dose of heavy, blues-based rock with rich vocals and wild guitar solos. The sun was really beating down on the crowd and the humidity was high, but we couldn't help moving to such energetic music. I didn't dare go to the meet and greet line because that thing was long enough to extend all the way to hell and back.

I don't know why I felt compelled to see Ingrid Michaelson. Going into the festival, I didn't have any strong feelings about her either way. Perhaps I just thought this would be a good chance to see what she's like in person. Or maybe I just really wanted to hear "The Way I Am" live. Having seen her on TV once, I thought we'd be in for a low-key, pleasant-but-uneventful set of mellow singer/songwriter music. Was I ever wrong about THAT! If Dar Williams was a barrel of laughs, the adorable Ms. Michaelson was two and a half barrels. She didn't even have to try; she just opened her mouth and unbelievably funny things came out. Audience participation played a big role in her set; she even taught us our parts, acknowledging that many of us were probably not experts on her music. And yes, she did perform the XPN (and Old Navy commercial) favorite "The Way I Am," but being sick of doing it the same way over and over again, she opened the song.....by rapping. And rapping. And rapping. At one point, she led us through an impromptu singalong on the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As if her natural humor and charm weren't enough, I was impressed that she had WOMEN in her band! No disrespect to all the wonderful female artists with all-male backing bands, but it's nice to see a woman who actually employs female musicians; two women played right along with two men in Ingrid's fine band. Yes, Ingrid Michaelson is an easy target for critics because she has a sound which is common for female singer/songwriters of today. But she is a truly special performer with many quality songs, and I am now officially a fan.

One more thing: in the meet and greet area, most artists sat or stood behind a table, the separation between artist and fan well-established. Ingrid stood on the same side of the table as the fans who waited in line to meet her, talking face-to-face and letting us hug her! She has to get mad props from me for that.

Image 5: For some reason, Nicole Atkins signed under Ingrid Michaelson's picture, leaving Ms. Michaelson to scribble an autograph over her own forehead!

I was fading fast, and I knew I couldn't stay at the festival 'til the end. But remember my friend who so wanted to see Jesse Ruben? I was intrigued that the other act she most wanted to see was Matt Nathanson. What a pleasure it was to hear and see him. An enjoyable singer/songwriter with a lot of heart and soul and an off-the-wall sense of humor. He was at times snarky and at times inappropriate for an ostensibly family-friendly event, but he made me laugh regardless. I also have to hand it to him for demonstrating why the folks running this event should not have allowed artists to do their grand finales only to say, "Let's have another song!" Matt Nathanson did a wonderful grand finale in which he engaged the audience in a rousing singalong. Then someone in a position of power had him come out and do another song, and he admitted that he had no idea what to play because he hadn't planned on doing an encore. Fortunately, his former touring buddy Ingrid Michaelson was observing him from the rear of the stage, so he brought her up to duet with him. Even more fortunately, the duet worked.

And that was it for me. There was more festival left, but I was half asleep and ready to call it a day...weekend...weekend plus. Whatever. It was a rollercoaster ride, but the highs were incredibly high and the pleasant surprises especially sweet. I'm already looking forward to next year's event. Are the tickets available yet???

Missed the festival? Didn't miss it but want to relive it? No problem: http://www.xpn.org/festival08/media.php

Original text copyright © 2008 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.