BY ARTHUR SHKOLNIK The sweltering heat did little to discourage massive crowds from herding into Wiggins Park on the Camden Waterfront this weekend for the XPoNential Music Festival, WXPN’s 17th annual three-day summer music festival, featuring over 30 unique and diverse bands and musicians. Promotional frisbees stubbornly took to the wind as Philly natives the Blood Feathers helped kick off Sunday’s festivities. Blood Feathers rocked the River Stage with their timeless and melodic blend of dirty funk, country twang, and fast paced rock and roll. All the while Fool’s Gold, a six-piece from Los Angeles with three percussionists, couldn’t have made it more difficult for listeners to stamp a genre onto their performance, but this didn’t stop the beat from bringing festival-goers to their respective feet. As the set went on the band constantly kept the crowd guessing as they shifted through a variety of exotic and unconventional percussive instruments in a seamless blend of rehearsed tracks and live improvisation — including the clear crowd favorite “Surprise Hotel.” This alone was worth the three dollar hot dog.
The four-piece Los Angeles troupe known as Dawes gave a stellar performance with the focus on vocalist Taylor Goldsmith; his versatile voice and flawless guitar work caught idle eyes and ears, who quickly joined the already massive crowd. Overall the set was as tame and relaxing as, well, a Sunday afternoon, but Goldsmith proved to the audience he has a little bit of Mike Ness in him with a live performance of “When My Time Comes” off of their North Hills album. Among the gems tucked away at the Marina stage were the Holmes Brothers, a three-piece band that preached their soulful blues as if it were the gospel. The Holmes Brothers got their start in 1967, and have shared the stage with countless legendary performers including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Willie Nelson. Real brothers Sherman and Wendell Holmes, and “brother-in-spirit” Popsy Dixon started off their set with a powerful and astonishingly fresh rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Sherman’s raw and sincere vocals perfectly complimented his guitar work, which is full of organized chaos in the form of wailing bends, cacophonous discord, energetic solos, and sounds that generally don’t come out of a guitar; it’s as if he puts a piece of himself into every note. The Holmes Brothers have just released their tenth album, titled “Feed My Soul” on Alligator Records. At this point the crowd was floating on a sea of good vibes amidst a veritable rainbow of lawn chairs and towels. Half a dozen beach balls bounced playfully atop eager fans as they impatiently waited for the ten-piece band known as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros to take the stage.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, whose debut album was featured as number six in XPN’s Year in Review Top Albums, and whose single “Home” was voted by XPN listeners as the best song of the year, put on a feel-good show coupled with a carefree performance, courtesy of Edward Sharpe, whose personality is simply too large to contain on a stage. With a handful of catchy hooks to sink your teeth into and a huge, layered sound bursting with happiness and cheer, this band was an all-around crowd pleaser.
Cowboy Junkies — a band heavily rooted in country, rock, and blues — took the River stage by surprise with a laid back, bass heavy introduction. With a voice softer than satin and lyrics harder than a bed of nails, lead singer Margo Timmins creates an effectively charming yet somewhat insincere juxtaposition within her music. Meanwhile on the Marina Stage, Amy Correia backed up her simple, heartfelt, storytelling lyrics with an interesting combination of guitar, cello, violin, and keyboard.
The festival now entered its last three acts, starting with the Philly five-piece known as Dr. Dog. Lead guitarist, Scott McMicken, and bassist Toby Leaman shared vocals throughout the set, opening with “Shadow People,” off of their 2010 release Shame, Shame, which was one of XPN’s Featured Albums of the Week. Their experimental, pseudo-psychedelic indie sound has evolved, featuring tighter, more polished three-part harmonies and darker lyrical undertones. Dr. Dog had the crowd roaring along lyric for lyric through their entire set, and was unquestionably an energetic high-point and one of the many Philly bands that brought their A Game to the stage.
The festival ended in high spirits and good cheer, courtesy of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who bring the ultimate jam experience with them wherever they go. With an emphasis on “feeling good,” the band took festival-goers on an always unexpected, but never disappointing journey chock full of bass slapping buildups and mind melting pedal steel guitar. The band played songs that they’ve improvised on for many years such as “Voodoo Chile,” but still managed to surprise the crowd with newer remixes, including a rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” (For those who missed the set or are interested in an encore performance, Robert Randolph and the Family Band are playing a gig at the Crocodile Rock in Allentown on July 26th.)
XPoNential Music Festival seems to get bigger and more family friendly every year since its inception at Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing back in the 90s. After three days and more than 30 bands, the festival came to a climactic close, leaving audiences satisfied yet wanting more. We saw old friends, made some new ones, and lost ourselves in some great music. Who knows what the future has in store for XPoNential Fest? Well, until next year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Arthur Shkolnik is a senior at Temple University and resides in the Great Northeast where his fluent Russian often comes in handy.