[Photos by MEREDITH KLEIBER]
BY MEREDITH KLEIBER Yes, the heat was nearly unbearable. Yes, we were all sweating until Rorshach patterns formed on our clothes. But the 2011 XPoNential Music Festival was more than worth it. Having hosted music festivals for the past eighteen years, WXPN has certainly honed their ability to please their festival-goers. There were misting stations posted around the park so that their event didn’t end up like the Warped Tour’s Camden stop. If your preferred cool-down method was in the form of an ice-cold beer, there was plenty of reasonably priced local Flying Fish to go around. In the end, the music was hotter than the weather. Below we’ve recapped our favorite performances of the weekend.
North Mississippi All Stars Duo
Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, better known as the North Mississippi Allstars Duo, brought their modern take on traditional blues to the River Stage on early Friday evening, delivering a foot-stompin’ set of juke-joint jams, Delta mojo and trance-inducing beats. The crowning moment was surely the traditional “Down By The Riverside” into R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie.” They made excellent song choices the entire set, keeping it mostly upbeat, and threw in some nontraditional elements (most notably the washboard and the cigar box guitar) to keep the audience engaged. And it worked — there wasn’t a still body in the crowd.
Gary Clark Jr.
Bringing a different shade of the blues, Gary Clark Jr. fittingly followed the North Mississippi Allstars Duo. Whereas the Allstars Duo’s style draws on traditional elements of North Mississippi hill country blues, Clark’s version of the blues is peppered with searing, Jimmy Page–style Hammer Of The Gods guitar riffs so nasty they’re verging on sinister. To avoid overheating the already-baking crowd, Clark balanced out his set with slow-burn songs that were smoky, soulful, and evoked the wide-screen panoramas of his native Lone Star state. Clark isn’t too well known just yet, but with sets like this that will soon change.
Perhaps the most anticipated act of Friday night was XPN favorite Citizen Cope. Cope (née Clarence Greenwood) commanded the River Stage and owned the audience with his all-acoustic set. The upbeat songs “200,000 (In Counterfeit 50 Dollar Bills)” and “Bullet and a Target” got the audience moving early on in the set, their clapping compensating for the absence of a rhythm section. Cope showcased his mellower side with “Keep Askin’” and “Lifeline” from his new album, The Rainwater LP. He picked up speed again towards the end of the set with the single from his sophomore album, “The Son’s Gonna Rise”, which featured a welcome appearance by Gary Clark, Jr. The penultimate song, “Hurricane Waters,” was accompanied by tape loops to which Cope softly strummed along, as well as some surprise fireworks. He left us with a new song entitled “One Lovely Day” that left everyone excited about his upcoming album.
Keb’ Mo crossed the stage on Saturday afternoon playing a cat-and-mouse game with XPN host Michaela Majoun. He sneaked up behind her while she was announcing his set and provided the audience with a light-heartedness that temporarily took our minds off of the grueling heat. With a well-balanced fusion of his crooning, velveteen blues and charismatic storytelling, he quickly owned the audience and made it look effortless. By the end of his set, he was comfortable enough to play a few new songs, the kinks of which he hadn’t completely worked out yet. As he struggled to sing the correct notes, he offered a few words of wisdom: “If you’re gonna be in show business, you can’t be afraid of embarrassing yourself.” At that point, however, he had the audience wrapped around his little finger so tightly that we would have been delighted no matter how many clams he blew.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
If you live in the Philly metro region, you’ve most likely seen Ted Leo & The Pharmacists at least a handful of times, as they play here quite often (as Ted Leo said, “at least 19 times a year”). Marking the 10th anniversary of The Tyranny of Distance’s release, Ted Leo and company devoted their set to playing the album from beginning to end — with miles and miles of punk-rock style. The over-caffeinated guitar licks and throttling beats were enough to keep even the most heat-exhausted awake and pogoing.
When the legendary Mr. Booker T Jones presented himself to the crowd on Saturday afternoon, I was not alone in barely being able to contain my sheer excitement. Helming a crack backing band, Booker T didn’t take long to get the audience off its blankets and on its feet with a mix of expected songs (“Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Potato Hole”) and surprises (an all-instrumental cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything”), but of course it was “Green Onions” that really got everyone grooving. Booker T’s trademark keyboard crescendos shone throughout the set and drummer Darian Gray showcased his rapping talents during their version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which was punctuated by a blistering guitar solo by Brandon “Ice” Black and funky bass lines from Jeremy Curtis. Booker T concluded with a heart-tugging, lighter-waving-worthy “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Even though he wrote it, the song was popularized by and will forever be associated with the dearly departed Otis Redding. Friday night, Booker T took it back.
Hayes Carll is like the calm before a storm. The country-folk-rock singer-songwriter appears shy and retiring at first glance, but when he kicked into his first song, that impression immediately vanished in the roar. His command over the stage (and by that I’m referring to more than just his looming height) is impressive and carries over into his vocal control and storytelling. The standout songs of his set were the recently released “KMAG YOYO,” a butt-kicking, motor-mouthed update of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the Afghan war generation; “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” a song he dedicated in the introduction to the late Bill Morrisey, without whom he “wouldn’t be here”; and “Stomp and Holler,” pounding away at his guitar and busting out funky dance moves like a self-described “James Brown, only white and taller.”
Clad in a red plaid shirt and a tweed newsboy cap, Ben Folds could easily fool you into thinking that he’s just an ordinary guy — that is, until he starts playing the piano. He tore up the keys on the Steinway as he navigated through his set, frequently expressing his frustrations with the piano’s apparently inadequate performance (“You’re killin’ me, Steinway!”). Of course, those troubles weren’t perceptible to the audience, who loved every minute. He entertained us with humorous anecdotes and blistering arpeggios, and even disregarded the fact that he was on live radio for a second by dropping the F-bomb, for which he laughingly apologized. The highlight of his set was the emotionally arresting “Landed” and a swell cover of Burt Bachrach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” which coincided with the opening of the skies and a welcome, refreshing rain shower.
By the time the distinctively sonorous and soothing voice of Emmylou Harris washed over the crowd during her Fest-closing set late Sunday night, the sweltering heat and any inconveniences that were experienced during the long weekend were soon forgotten. After beginning the set with the upbeat country song “Six White Cadillacs,” during which her synergy with backing band The Red Dirt Boys radiated, she transitioned into an affecting cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” immediately followed by the beloved “Red Dirt Girl.” The first show-stopper was a haunted reading of “My Name Is Emmett Till,” a song about the brutal murder of a young black boy in Mississippi that was one of the fueling events behind the Civil Rights movement. Harris gave the obligatory nod to her career-establishing partnership with the late Gram Parsons in her song “The Road,” which she called “a tip of the hat to him and the universe for the extraordinary life I’ve been given.” She again channeled Parsons with a rousing cover of “Luxury Liner,” a song which she previously released on her 1977 album of the same name. The second show-stopper was the a capella spiritual “Calling My Children Home” and the third was “Goodbye,” a stellar Steve Earle cover that resonated long after it ended. She encored with the rollicking foggy mountain breakdown of Bill Monroe’s “Get Up John,” giving exhausted Festival goers a much-needed jolt of adrenaline for the long slog home.