The 2013 XPoNential Music Festival, put on flawlessly by the good folks at 88.5 WXPN, shuffled a lineup of bands new and old, cutting edge and quaint, bluegrass and bombastic over an entire weekend at Wiggins Park and The Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden.
Michael Kiwanuka, a British soul singer who speaks the King’s English but belts like Joe Cocker, kicked off the first evening with a warm ember meditation alongside his Woodstock-outfitted band. Folks who sat far back on the lawn probably thought he was twenty years older; people love guys like Kiwanuka, the mid 20’s singer with an old soul who eschews modern styles for guys like Otis Redding and Bill Withers. The Brits have long had a fascination with American Soul Music, our chief export across the pond, and Kiwanuka channeled Stax Records-styled ballads with supreme nonchalance. He makes good mid-summer jams. Not one of his songs would be out of place while laying on a hammock, nor laying on grass alongside the river. In other words, he was the perfect choice for the Friday 8pm slot.
If Michael Kiwanuka was a good summer shandy, Red Baraat was a fireball on the Marina Stage. The bhangra funk outfit from Brooklyn gave a tutorial on hip swayin’ and hand twirlin’ as the their first song set the entire demographic into a tizzy. These guys are built for events like this – a lean brass section, two percussionists, and a huge tuba. You will never not smile when you see a man two stepping with a tuba. Red Baraat won over anyone unfamiliar with them. And they spiked the adrenaline for a crowd coming to Camden after a work day with dreams of festival beach chairs and six dollar craft beers dancing in their heads.
This segued into the closer for Friday night: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Most of the younger crowd came specifically to see the sprawling outfit from LA; it was hard to figure out who was doing what onstage, as a rotating cast of twelve musicians all sang, played tambourines, or wailed on a trumpet at some point. Beach balls bounced through the crowd while Edward Sharpe played the hits, most of which occupy your brain for days. He’s entirely likeable, talented without being condescending; he looks like Russell Brand but is actually funny while bantering between songs. His band is built for outdoor festivals, and as a showmen he never lets you take his eyes off him. He and his band set the bar high for the second day of performances.
On Saturday, Lord Huron got things going on the Marina Stage after a set from the legendary Dr. John. Lord Huron is a band from LA who makes spacious guitar rock that makes you think of driving across the Midwest in an old beat-up Chevy flat bed. With the exception of the drummer, each band member looked alike, but it didn’t matter. All the girls were swooning. Like Red Baraat, they won over a big portion of the crowd while the weather was at its most stifling.
Trampled By Turtles took over the main stage next. Some would call them a product of the Jam Band Circuit, but TBT employed a string section and a banjo. Their set gave flashbacks to Neil Young and T-Bone Burnett rather than a hackeysack soundtrack. It was consoling bluegrass, a good band to have a picnic to. No turtles nor humans were trampled during their set.
John Butler Trio livened up the festival. Part rockabilly, part guitar rock via banjo, the Trio turned heads young and old. Butler strummed out favorites from his albums but twisted some around for extended jams that had people hootin’, hollerin’, and jiggin’ about like they caught the Holy Ghost. Butler had a great command of the audience – I doubt he’s ever paid for his own beer after a set in his entire life.
Dr. Dog then moved the party over to the big stage at the Susquehanna Bank Center. The local outfit has been a consistent presence on XPN’s airwaves and festival. They had an airtight set of catchy songs that had people dancing and singing from the pit to the back lawn. Their consistency is almost boring to write about — their live show and catalogue can win over first time listeners and longtime diehards without much effort.
Before The Lumineers closed out the night, Minnesota unit Polica shuffled in on the Key Stage to little fanfare and stole the night. Polica has played Philly multiple times in the past year since their debut album dropped in late 2011. At first, they were a wistful synth pop band with a shy lead singer making their debut at Kung Fu Necktie last spring. After a year on the road, they emerged at XPoNential Festival as a gang of confident stage regulators belting out icy melodic material too vast for a side stage tucked away behind concession stands. With a new album dropping in October, expect to see them play venues like Union Transfer or TLA regularly for the next two years.
The second night closer The Lumineers triumphantly emerged on the main stage. It’s hard not to bump into their songs. Even if you don’t know them by name, you or your co-worker or your great aunt Ruthie has hummed one of their hits while shopping at a department store, or watching a TV commercial, or just turning on any radio FM station by accident. A band at the height of its newfound popularity (they played the same festival last year as one of the first acts on day one), The Lumineers could’ve mailed it in on the strength of their multiple gummy Top 40 crowd pleasers. But the Colorado collective threw in a Bob Dylan cover and a mobile performance from inside the bowels of the Bank Center to solidify their spot as a good ol’ rock band who hasn’t hit the wall of endless touring and overwhelming industry demands. Like Polica, The Lumineers made their bones in Philly multiple times on the rise to success and have gotten stronger as showmen since their initial sets over a year ago.
Overall, the 2013 XPoNential Festival was a massive success, selling out the weekend and keeping the ferry quite busy going across the river with the influx of people from all walks of life completely amped to see old favorites and discover new artists that they could one day tell their friends “Well…actually I was there back in 2013 when they played the side stage for XPN!”
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