Tuesday, July 28, 2009

XPoNential Function, Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Day Two: Saturday, July 25, 2009

Having had such a blast on Friday, I was really psyched about Saturday and Sunday. Slathered in sunscreen, umbrella packed despite forecasts for a clear day, I arrived at the festival grounds in time to hear and see local rockers The Peace Creeps. I must hand it to them for demonstrating the perils of well-intentioned but ill-advised covers. One month to the date after Michael Jackson's death, it was not surprising to hear covers of his or The Jackson 5's songs. As I was making my way through the festival grounds, I heard The Peace Creeps absolutely slaughtering "I Want You Back." Having never seen or heard them live, I thought, "This is what The Peace Creeps sound like? This is terrible!" But then they played their own songs and they sounded great!

Sharon Little is difficult to pin down genre-wise, but I truly believe she is a soul sister at heart. And she is such a photogenic performer that whenever I see her, it takes much discipline for me to actually pay attention to the music and not just take an endless stream of pictures. I once made a point of leaving my camera at home for that very reason. Thankfully, her River Stage set was too funky for me to even hold on to my camera; I took a couple of photos but I was too busy dancing to go overboard. Supported by Scot Sax (her partner in almost everything) and Josh Dion, she delivered a typically exhilarating performance marked by untamed vocals and all sorts of dramatic gestures. Combining established favorites with new songs, some of the latter featuring a nifty horn section, her set was one of the festival's strongest. Sharon is one of those rare artists who can make me smile and bring tears to my eyes at the same time. Go, sister, go!

Bands with geographical names are not always named in honor of their home turf, a case in point being Pennsylvania's Illinois. I was somewhat familiar with this band and was looking forward to seeing them take over the Marina Stage. My XPN member newsletter refers to them as "indie-rockers." Oh, really? At the festival, they played a stompin' folk-rock raveup, then a number with hip-hop beats and heavy synthesizers, then a piano ballad; their last song was a funky thang with a banjo and ear-splitting electric guitars. This ain't no indie-rock band. Illinois' festival set was, in a word, marvelous. Their musicianship was spectacular and frontman Arch was funny as hell. I wasn't the only one who was impressed: I made a point of getting to the festival merch table quickly to buy the band's CD The Adventures of Kid Catastrophe, but even in my haste all I could get my hands on was the next-to-last display copy. All the others had already sold out!

Michael is an extremely prolific film and TV composer. Kevin is a movie star. So are The Bacon Brothers any good or are they just trading on their success in other endeavors? Well........they're actually good! And they're wise enough to surround themselves with excellent supporting musicians. Their River Stage set of Americana rock was at times funny, at times moving, and always enjoyable. Michael came off as the serious, devoted musician; Kevin came off as the one who was in it for fun. They complemented each other well and they were both solid showmen. And I'm glad to report that Kevin did not have a "movie star" attitude on stage; he was just one of the guys and interacted nicely with the audience. I tried to meet the brothers Bacon afterwards, only to find that their meet and greet session took place before their set -- the worst part being that I had looked at the meet and greet schedule earlier and should have known that! No matter; I mostly just wanted to tell Kevin that I went to the same high school he went to.

Speaking of high school, I thought I'd first become aware of the eclectic They Might Be Giants during my 10th grade class trip to New York City, when one of my classmates handed me his Walkman (remember those?) and suggested I listen to them. After seeing them at the festival, I realized I'd been aware of their music for longer than I'd thought. See, I'd always enjoyed them whenever I heard them, but I was never a connoisseur. Still, I was definitely interested in checking out their performance, and I did just that with about six million of my closest friends in front of the River Stage. You need to have a forgiving sense of humor to appreciate the band's on-the-nose comedy: ".....in the front: THE PEOPLE IN THE FRONT!!!!!" The band's stage act, and hearing their songs in the context of a festival featuring so many of my current favorites, taught me a lesson about They Might Be Giants and myself. Follow me here: TMBG are nerdy. I used to be. I used to really like TMBG. I'm no longer nerdy. I don't like TMBG as much as I used to. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy their performance, but it represented a sort of bittersweet closure, a break from my old nerdy self if you will.

I should note that up to this point, I'd never seen anyone do an encore or even get asked for one by anyone from XPN. Maybe the fest's organizers took my complaints to heart (read the Matt Nathanson section of last year's Day Four if you don't know what I'm talking about). After TMBG's finale, I assumed there would be no encores and I walked away, but the crowd went so wild that the band came back out and played "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." As if anything could compete with The Four Lads' version! Anyways, I was tired but I decided to head over to the Marina Stage to check out rootsy locals Hoots and Hellmouth. Though never among my favorite acts, I knew this band to kick ass in person, so I thought it would be cool to see them. There was a thick, impenetrable crowd in front of the stage and I couldn't get a good view, so I just decided to forget about it.

Days One and Two had been awesome! Heading home on Saturday night, I wasn't sure how Day Three would play out. The scheduling of the acts I most wanted to see was tricky, to say the least. And with storms in the forecast, would we have a repeat of Friday night? Well.....

On Sunday morning, I woke up about three-fourths asleep and aching all over. I'd rocked the festival on Friday and Saturday, and apparently I'd rocked both days a little too hard. Trying to decide whether to drag myself out to Camden for one more day, I turned on my radio and listened to the weather forecast. I heard terms like "flash flood watch," "gusty thunderstorms," "damaging winds," and "hail." I turned the radio off, went back to bed, and slept in -- there was no way I was going back to the festival. Did I miss some great acts? Oh, sure. But having bought my 3-day pass with my member discount during the early bird pricing period meant that I definitely got my money's worth from the first two days, and I enjoyed those two days so much that I really didn't care about having to miss Sunday. By the way: the festival DID get rained on that night!

Thank you, XPN, for putting on such a wonderful festival. Do it again next year?

If you haven't already, check out my accompanying photo album!

Missed the festival? Attended but want to relive it? Here you go: http://www.xpn.org/music-artist/festival-2009

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
Keep up with ONA and help spread the word. Become a fan on Facebook.

Monday, July 27, 2009

XPoNential Function, Part One

Ever since attending my first XPN festival last year, I haven't been able to shut up about it. If you've been reading One Note Ahead recently, you know I spent a lot of time impatiently anticipating this year's event -- and did it ever deliver! But wait a minute; maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about. WXPN is a public radio powerhouse located in my fair city of Philadelphia and now heard worldwide thanks to the internet. Every year, XPN hosts a huge music festival which is currently known as the XPoNential Music Festival and takes place across the Delaware River from Philly on the beautiful Camden, New Jersey waterfront (yes, that's right: there is beauty to be found in Camden). Like XPN itself, the festival brings together an impossibly diverse array of musical genres including rock, blues, country, folk, soul, hip-hop, and pop......no no, not "pop" as in Lady Gaga! And just as XPN gives its members a lot for a small amount of money, XPN does the same for festival attendees, whether they're members or not. Of course I am a member, so I get all sorts of perks like meet and greets with certain artists and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages with unlimited refills -- oh-so-helpful in the dead of summer!

Even before it began, this year's festival was noticeably different from last year's. The economic recession prompted XPN to shorten it from four days to three. The lineup was decidedly edgier. Now that the fest is over, I can say these were good changes. A shorter festival meant the lineup had to be more focused in terms of quality. As for the edginess, I'll be honest: as much as I loved last year's event, I did feel that it was a bit safe overall and I feared it was reflective of a comfortable medium on XPN's part. This year's lineup helped to restore my faith in XPN as a station with some teeth to it. Besides, the edgier lineup suited the times well. Along those lines, there was magic in the air throughout most of last year's event, but with the malaise and disillusionment of 2009, I wondered if that magic would still be there. I needn't have worried one bit.

And now, the specifics of what I experienced and feel inclined to report:

Day One: Friday, July 24th, 2009

It's a delicate balance, having to prepare for blazing sunshine and the possibility of thunderstorms in the same day! I got it half right, at least. And may I just say, if you go to this festival, bring your own reusable bottle and your own hand sanitizer! I learned those lessons last year, but I'm profoundly happy to have put those lessons to use this year. If you need some other tips, contact me.

I have to question the wisdom of opening the festival with the laid-back Brazilian jazz band Minas. Maybe they're usually more energetic and this was not a representative performance; all I know is that they were good at what they did, but they hardly brought the kind of excitement you'd want to kick off a festival with. It would have made more sense to put them on later.

Minas' set took place on the Marina Stage, which is the smaller of the two festival stages. (As far as I'm concerned, the Kids Corner stage does not exist. I'd have been all over it if I were 20 years younger, though.) The first artist to perform on the vast, spacious River Stage was longtime ONA favorite Matt Duke. How awesome is it that he's come so far over the past few years? Matt performed with a setup similar to that of his Kingdom Underground CD release last year: a four-piece band backing him, with the recently ONA-approved Tim McGlone on acoustic guitar and Matt giving us the rare treat of his electric guitar work. Matt just rocked. No quiet songs, but all the aggressive material from his current album. I especially appreciated this version of "Walk If Off" because it was furious without being disconcerting; I've always found the recorded version difficult to listen to because it is a little too crazed. Typically for Matt, you had no idea how or what he was going to sing or play, his stage mannerisms were equally unpredictable, and he found amusing replacements for the cuss words in his songs -- this WAS a family-friendly event and it WAS being broadcast on the radio! He also turned the lead spotlight over to Tim for one song, McGlone's catchy "Hollywood." During this number, a friend of mine was grooving along but nevertheless leaned over to me and said, "Not as good as Duke!" Well.....who is? I enjoyed the set quite a lot, but another friend of mine who listened on the radio thought Matt "sounded awful." I'd like to think she was just listening on an awful radio.

Annuals. I knew the name and not much else. I was curious enough to want to see them. Upon learning that I'd never seen them before, a friend of mine who works for XPN (and made some good recommendations last year!) told me Annuals are amazing and described them as sounding like "The Warped Tour if it took place in Texas." They're actually based in North Carolina, but my friend's description did put my curiosity over the top. The sextet combined indie-rock, country, harmony pop, folk, and I swear I heard some Latin elements somewhere in there! Yet they had their own identifiable sound. Their set was just outrageous, with layers of dramatic voices and instruments and powerfully intense playing, all offset by frontman Adam Baker's offbeat sense of humor. I met them afterwards and briefly talked with some of them. They seemed very nice -- but things aren't always what they seem, right? Well, a few hours later I was standing by the river and I saw Annuals leaving, so I just looked their way and smiled. It was quite dark and I wasn't sure they could even see me, but one of them actually said to me, "Have a good night, man!" Talented, friendly, and their latest CD Such Fun borrows its artwork from Bob Ross, who inspired me to become a painter as a kid and whom I dressed up as for Halloween in 1995. This is all just too cool.

I was familiar with the instrumental surf-rock stylings of Los Straitjackets, but I'd never seen them in person. Their stage act is ridiculous, but in a good way. Wearing Mexican wrestlers' masks and matching suits, their coordinated stage moves were often interrupted by long ramblings delivered in fast-tongued Spanish -- broken up with some archly-pronounced American English for good measure. There was really nothing new or original about what they played; you can go back to The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Santo & Johnny, and countless other guitar-rock pioneers to get the basis of their sound. But Los Straitjackets are good musicians and fun showmen. And they played the theme from The Munsters, which is only one of the coolest TV themes ever!

During Los Straitjackets' set, we experienced what XPN veteran David Dye so cleverly called "setus interruptus." The possibility of a thunderstorm was now a reality, and we had to go running for cover. The XPN festival is an all-weather event, you see; it would pretty much take a tornado to derail it completely. After the storm broke (or at least we thought it did!), Los Straitjackets returned to their set and their shtick, the dark night sky finally rolled in, and a beautiful post-storm breeze dominated for the rest of the night.

For me, the setting was just right to head on over to the Marina Stage and rock out to Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. Here's a band I'd considered seeing for quite some time and I'd resolved to finally get it done at the festival. I'm glad I did. Their country-infused rock 'n' roll sound is just wondrous at its best, their super-tight playing and Sarah's familiar-yet-distinctive voice making it clear that they're not just another bar band. They also have a knack for balancing their original material with unusual cover choices; it takes a special band to open a set with Doug "Sir Douglas" Sahm's "You're Out Walking The Streets Tonight"! Meeting them afterwards, I found them to be every bit as fun and funny as they were on stage. Smart, too: Sarah had introduced a slowish number by saying that slow songs are a great way to get to know the person next to you, if you get her drift. Maybe so, but it was actually during a fast number that I found a new dancing partner, and I told Sarah as much after the show. "Did you meet someone?" asked Sarah with a surprising amount of enthusiasm, to which I replied, "I did! During 'Stop and Think It Over,' I believe." After getting over her enthusiasm, Sarah admonished, tongue somewhat in cheek, "Well: Stop! And think it over before you do anything."

Sage advice.

Robert Cray was the last act of the night, and I didn't want to end such a happy day and night with the blues! But I just missed the ferry back to Philly and had to wait for the next one, so I did hear his set and it did actually provide a strangely suitable soundtrack as I stood there by the river looking into the absolutely gorgeous night sky, watching the Philadelphia waterfront and skyscrapers in their illuminated glory.

And I don't even like skyscrapers.

Continued in Part Two.

And check out my accompanying photo album!

Missed the festival? Attended but want to relive it? Here you go: http://www.xpn.org/music-artist/festival-2009

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
Keep up with ONA and help spread the word. Become a fan on Facebook.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Now Hear This! - Vol. 2

My "earworm" series continues. As before, I'm including a few newies and a few oldies and I'm keeping everything on the lesser-known side. I try to always go for songs that can be downloaded individually (and legally!), but of course I will tell you what albums or compilations to look for if you want to buy more than just the one song.


For the newer ones this time, I'll stay in the spirit of the season and recommend songs I associate with summer.

"Lullaby Appetite," Alexa Wilkinson (available on Lullaby Appetite)

Ah, the summer of 2007! A time spent healing my frustrated music journalist's wounds by going to concerts and tossing back a couple of beers. Beer may not be the best way to heal, but music this beautiful sure eases the pain. I wasn't even familiar with Alexa when I saw her; she was sharing the bill with another artist whom I followed at the time. The shy, mild-mannered Ms. Wilkinson didn't make much of an impression on me at first.....then in the days following the show, I couldn't get this song out of my head. An inviting, soulfully sung folk-pop ballad with simply gorgeous instrumentation and a haunting melody. I'm getting all tingly just listening to it right now.

"Hallway," Bojibian (available on the Bojibian EP)

Although I could have stayed home and watched reruns of reruns of reruns of How I Met Your Mother, the summer of 2008 found me spending Monday nights at the Philly Rising Open Mic, where I watched this local foursome rock the stage on numerous occasions. Incidentally, they're named in honor of rock legends Bo Diddley and Jibi Hendrix. Not buying that? Okay, fine: they're actually named after Armenian financier A. Randolph Bojibian, who funded their first recording session. Okay, fine! In truth, "Bojibian" doesn't mean anything. The lyrics to "Hallway" are only slightly more meaningful, but with menacing chords, gritty harmonies, and a tripped-out guitar break, does anyone really care?

"Fools," Diane Birch (available on Bible Belt)

The summer of 2009! Hellish times for many of us, but we've still got some good music to help us through it all. You're probably seeing Diane Birch a lot on TV and in the press these days. That's great. Every time you've seen her on TV, you've probably heard her perform the song "Nothing But A Miracle." That's not great. Who am I to disagree with her record company or whatever experts chose "Miracle" as the lead single from her album? I'm a consumer who went out and bought her album and decided that even though "Miracle" is good, "Fools" is the pick hit: an immediately engaging slice of soul-pop heaven with a scintillating melody and a structure that's simple without being simplistic. But hey, as long as this talented singer/songwriter is getting recognized....

And as a bonus, I'd like to mention a track that's not available yet but you can listen to it online. You might remember The Idles. They're working on a new record, and the track "Everyday I'm A Rockstar" is streaming on MySpace now. This is more of that raw, nasty, fun rock 'n' roll The Idles are known for -- pay special attention to the lyrics on this one! The Idles have been good to One Note Ahead, so please be good to them.


"(Do The) Mashed Potatoes (Part I)," Nat Kendrick & The Swans (available on The Legendary Henry Stone Presents: Nat Kendrick & The Swans)

James Brown believed that an instrumental based on the "Mashed Potato" dance (in which people shuffled their feet as if mashing potatoes with them!) could be a hit. Syd Nathan, the head of JB's label King Records, didn't agree -- by the way, King also let Hank Ballard's "The Twist" go to waste around the same time, only for Chubby Checker's cover version to cause a Twist sensation. Not one to let Nathan's ineptitude hold him back, The Godfather of Soul had his band cut "Mashed Potatoes" for another label under a pseudonym, enlisting deejay King Coleman to overdub his vocals over Brown's so Nathan wouldn't get hip. The result is weirdly cool, some basic R&B riffage punctuated by off-kilter shout-singing, and it's all over in a heartbeat. There have been numerous alternate versions and reworkings over the years, but there's nothing quite like the hit version I've spotlighted here. (Note: For some reason, "Nat Kendrick" is sometimes billed or listed as "Nat Hendrick.")

"Mean Old World," Rick Nelson (available on The Best of Rick Nelson, 1963-75)

A young Billy Vera wrote this for Dionne Warwick, but such a crudely written song would hardly have fit such a refined singer. Ah, but Rick Nelson! Never a technical genius as a vocalist, but he had a pleasant voice, a knack for choosing excellent musicians, and a true feel for downbeat lyrics. And are these lyrics ever downbeat: "I can't let them see me cry/'Cause they don't care if I live or die." Ouch! Framed by some of the most solid instrumental work heard on any of his records, Rick sounds downright pissed by the time this track is over. If you've ever been left alone or mistreated in your time of need, you'll feel his pain.

"I Feel Much Better," Small Faces (available on The Immediate Years, Disc Two)

It's too bad that the Small Faces had only one major hit in the US, and it's too bad that their only major US hit was "Itchycoo Park," which has dated so poorly it's embarrassing. But that's the problem with this band's work: for every "Afterglow (Of Your Love)" there was a "Here Come The Nice," for every "All Or Nothing" a "Sha-La-La-La-Lee" (actually, they didn't even like that one). Silly tunes like "Lazy Sunday" made and still make it hard for some to take the Small Faces seriously, but they really were fantastic and powerful musicians. "I Feel Much Better" is one of my favorites, with its whimsically poetic lyrics, slyly trippy harmonies, and mood-shifting instrumentation. (Like most Small Faces tracks, it's available on many many compilations. The one I named is the iTunes comp that has what I consider the best-sounding mix. I have the track on a different collection, though.)

That's all for now. The XPN festival starts tomorrow, so look for a blog (or some blogs) about that next week. :-)

Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, July 20, 2009

One Video Ahead: So Long, Gordon

A poignant entry in our "One Video Ahead" series, as I'm sad to report that Gordon Waller of Peter & Gordon has passed away. This news struck a particular chord with me as Peter & Gordon were one of the first British Invasion acts I collected. In keeping with British pop of the 1960s, some of their recordings were a little overproduced for my tastes, but Gordon's resonant baritone and Peter's boyish tenor complemented each other perfectly when they found the right material. Speaking of material, some of their own compositions were damn good and have been unjustly overlooked: collectors, keep your eyes and ears open for "Don't Pity Me," "Morning's Calling," and the sublimely abstract "Stranger With A Black Dove" (as well as other hidden gems I've been told about but haven't yet discovered). But they were, of course, skilled interpreters: P&G had one of their biggest and best hits with Del Shannon's "I Go To Pieces," which Shannon gave them on tour. And because Paul McCartney was dating Peter's sister Jane, Peter Asher and Gordon Waller became best known for their interpretations of McCartney's compositions "A World Without Love," "Nobody I Know," "I Don't Want To See You Again," and "Woman." (The songwriting credits on these are fascinating: most everything McCartney wrote at the time was credited to him and John Lennon, but some say Peter helped Paul complete "A World Without Love," and it's well-documented that McCartney wrote "Woman" pseudonymously to see if it would become a hit without the benefit of his famous name.) Though P&G broke up in 1968, they reunited and once again became quite active in the 2000s. At times, it was clear that Peter had aged better than Gordon, so I'm afraid the latter's death from cardiovascular disease was not entirely surprising.

And now, two P&G videos for you. One from the mid-1960s TV series "Hullabaloo," performing "Woman" with an intro from Paul Anka:

And here they are last summer on an LA radio morning show. Though it was over 40 years after their hit streak and they sound like they've weathered quite a few storms, the harmonies are still solid. Here they're performing "I Go To Pieces" and "A World Without Love":

For more information on Gordon Waller and his passing: http://music.msn.com/music/article.aspx?news=421722&GT1=28102

Original text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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Monday, July 13, 2009

April Smith needs YOU!

Remember April Smith? If not, you must not have been reading One Note Ahead last autumn! Check out my review of her live EP and the videos I posted of her in last year's ONA Live.

Now, April is trying to make a new studio album. Apparently, I'm in the minority for being a fan who's pleased to have the live versions of "Colors" and "Wow and Flutter" and won't die of musical malnutrition without polished studio versions. So here's the deal: a lot of independent artists these days are turning to their fans for funding. Making a professional quality record is not cheap, and without a label backing the artist, a lack of money often prevents records from being made. Thus, April is asking fans for help. View her own personal plea here:

Whether this convinces you to give her some of your money in these lean times is a different story entirely, but I give her an "A" for effort. Hell, even I pledged some money to this project, picky as I am about how I spend my money. Such is the power of April Smith, I suppose!

She's already more than halfway to her goal. Let's keep up the momentum:

And here's her official website for more info: http://www.aprilsmithmusic.com/

Original text copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.
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