Photos by PETE TROSHAK
One of the must-see musical events of summer is radio station WXPN’s annual XPoNential Music Festival, which features alternating sets on two outdoor stages at Wiggins Park during the day and a main stage show at night at Susquehanna Bank Center adding up to 12 hours of non-stop music each day. This year’s edition carried on the tradition of an eclectic mix of music featuring less heralded but worthy acts and more famous acts like this year’s headliners Ryan Adams and Beck. Philly based Strand of Oaks set the bar high early on Saturday for the fest with a passionate set of their pedal-to-the-medal guitar and keys jams including a blistering “Goshen ’97” and a moving “JM” — a tribute to deceased Songs: Ohia songwriter Jason Molina — that sounded like the best Neil Young song Neil Young never wrote and included a stunning guitar solo by Oaks’ Leader Tim Showalter that echoed Young’s muscular solo on “Cortez The Killer.”
Ingrid Michaelson and her band played an entertaining and breezy set of her piano and ukulele based pop interspersed with amusing banter between her and her band on the main stage. Veteran rocker Dave Hause and a full band blitzed the second stage with a feisty set of rootsy rock that drew from his two solo albums. Folk rock group Dawes were supposed to play the last outdoor set on the main stage at the 2013 XPoNential fest but their performance was cancelled after seven inches of Dylan-esque hard rain fell in a flash. They returned this year, thankfully playing indoors (undoubtedly to appease the weather gods) and played a solid set of their mix of 70’s singer-songwriter sensibilities with Band-like harmonies and technical perfection topped off by some stunning guitar work from Taylor Goldsmith. Jenny Lewis and her band delivered a beautiful version of Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining” and a rollicking “Next Messiah” alongside a handful of cuts from her new The Voyager. Lewis was joined by her band and Dawes (as her backing choir) on Acid Tongue and Ryan Adams for new song “She’s Not Me” that featured some incendiary guitar work from the former Whiskeytown frontman. Adams headlined the Saturday night show, playing with a full band (which he has only done a handful of times since 2009) and thrilling the crowd with a fourteen song set that kicked off with his excellent new single “Gimme Something Good” and encored with a driving and memorable cover of The Wiper’s “Straight Ahead.”
The Sunday lineup was impressive too, with Jersey-ite Nicole Atkins delivering an early crowd-pleasing set that included a moving “The Way It Is,” the song that helped launch her career. The Old 97’s celebrated fifteen years since they first played at XPoNential with a loud and raucous set of their frenetic country rock to one of the biggest crowds of the day. Percussive pop anarchists Man Man delivered an energetic set led by singer Honus Honus who arrived on stage wearing a dark grey cloak bedazzled with red sequins and layed his hands on fans in the front row causing them to react like they were being raptured. Man Man drummer Pow Pow made like his name says and banged on the drums with precision and ferocity while wearing the biggest grin. Their set climaxed with a loud and rowdy crowd sing-along to “(Head On) Hold Onto Your Heart” and the crowd begging for an encore which the festival heads sadly denied (booo!).
Super-group Trigger Hippy led by former Black Crowes guitarist Jackie Green and singer Joan Osbourne delivered a set of powerful bluesy and funky rock n’roll from their forthcoming debut album. Band of Horses played long, dull set that was redeemed by an excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and an elegiac “The Funeral.” Beck closed out the XPoNential Fest 2014 with a lightning-flashed set that mixed choice cuts from the often-zany Odelay-era with the meditative, funereal vibe his more recent work. The highlight of the night, and perhaps the entire festival, was a show-stopping version of the R. Kelley satire “Debra.” Girl, 15 years after the release of Midnight Vultures, Beck still wants to get with you, and your sister — I think her name is Debra. — PETE TROSHAK