For the touring acts playing – and certainly the audience watching – this year’s XPoNential Music Festival can be summed up as a fun weekend full of great music, great people and relatively little rain.
But for local bands playing the festival, it means just a little bit more. For some, it was their first time playing outdoors in a festival setting. Others were returning to play for the third or fourth time. Several artists thought their sets went well, but a few had technical difficulties or other problems to work through.
From the Marina stage to the Susquehanna Bank Center, the hometown audience seemed to clap a little louder and listen a little more intently to the local acts. For Philly-based pop rock outfit Viv and the Revival, the first act to perform Friday, the admiration even elicited shouts of, “You rock!” and “Way to start our festival!” from the crowd.
“It’s really nice to be proud of your hometown band,” said frontman Viv Peyrat after the band’s set, which featured tracks from their forthcoming album The Introduction - including “I Want It,’ which had much of the audience clapping and singing along.
Electronic trio Marian Hill then brought on the dance beats during its festival debut. Their brand of synthpop may be trendy right now, but it was the band’s freeform and engaging approach to their live performance – with Samantha Gongol’s souring vocals and Steve Davit’s live saxophone and bass playing – that really won over the all-ages audience.
“Ideally it transcends,” producer Jeremy Lloyd said of the band’s music. “It’s really important to us that, beneath all of the production and the exciting elements, there’s a solid song there. I feel like that helps older audiences latch into it. I’m also sort of writing for my dad. I want to write music that he likes, that he can connect with, even though it’s a big stretch for him.”
Davit said he “had a blast” playing to the supportive crowd, and being able to see hometown fans visibly engaged and bobbing their heads to the music.
“It’s a really tight community, and everyone supports each other no matter what kind of music you [play],” he said of the local scene. “There’s a music scene in Philly that’s different from any other city that’s really rootsy and supportive.”
In the same vein, there was barely a pause from the crowd gathered at noon on Saturday for atmospheric rockers Our Griffins when frontman DJ Brown broke a guitar string.
“It happens. It happens to me too frequently,” Brown said heavy-heartedly of the incident after the band’s set, which overall still evoked plenty cheering and toe tapping from the crowd.
Brown said it’s both amazing and weird to be recognized as an emerging local act by entities like XPN, with on-air host Helen Leicht saying from stage that Our Griffins was at the top of her list to invite to play the festival.
“I’m completely self deprecating, so sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve it,” Brown said. “But I feel like the guys do in the band. We’ve worked really, really hard in the last year. That makes me feel better about it all. It makes me feel less, like, ‘Oh god, I hope I’m doing everything correctly. I hope I’m expressing myself properly.’”
On the other hand, Davis Howley, frontman of Doylestown-based indie pop rock band Commonwealth Choir and the first locals to take the River Stage this year, said playing bigger shows and garnering more attention is something his band is starting to get used to.
“It’s a rise-to-the-occasion sort of thing,” he said after their high-energy set.
Giving local bands recognition on a festival line-up is “incredibly important” to the Philly music scene, Howley added.
“When you have people putting each other on a pedestal, in a way, and giving each other a chance to shine, that’s an opportunity a lot of bands don’t get in a lot of cities, and even here. We’re just really lucky to be able to have that chance this year,” he said, adding with a smirk, “We plan on playing Susquehanna next here.”
Many local acts will wait years, or what seems like a lifetime, for a break like the chance to play at XPoNential. That was less the case for 10-year-old fiddle and guitar prodigy Gus Tritsch, who performed under the wing of central Pennsylvania’s Marah.
“It’s not my favorite, but I’m OK with it,” Tritsch said of hearing the praise from his admirers both during and after Marah’s set. He then rattled off some of his biggest musical influences, including fiddlers Casey Driessen and Billy Contreras, as well as Bruce Springsteen.
“Kids are fully capable of playing as well as adults do if they put their minds to it,” said Tristch’s mom, Shana, of her son’s musical abilities. Both Gus and his 8-year-old brother Huck are home schooled in Millheim, she added, giving them plenty of time to focus on music.
The reinvented Marah, which saw its heyday in the late ’90s and early 2000’s with a different line-up, absolutely wowed the audience with songs from their new record Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania.
“It’s sort of a restudy of some old folk writing that came out of the mountains of PA and we made it into a rock and roll record,” said Dave Bielanko, guitarist and founding member of the band, of the new album. “We were all surprised by how well that worked. Then we just became great friends. Me, Christine [Smith, keyboards] and Gus play a lot of wiffle ball together, we trade records. It’s a good relationship. … I couldn’t learn anything from anyone at this point [who is] my own age. But when I met Gus and I saw again what fearlessness is, and truly exploring music.”
More veteran personnel rounded out Saturday night’s local offerings. Philly’s own Strand of Oaks rocked the River Stage, playing several hits from the album HEAL, released last month.
“It’s been awesome,” said frontman Tim Showalter after his band’s set, barely able to get the words out in between greeting fans and taking sips from a celebratory beer. “We have just been busy doing shows, doing a lot of press and being excited that a lot of people like the record.”
Dave Hause helped continue the crowd’s energy into the evening. The XPoNential audience has become used to seeing the rocker perform at the festival, both with his previous band, The Loved Ones, and as a solo artist.
“I think the festival has been maintaining its quality and commitment to eclectic music and the spirit of singer/songwriters for as long as I’ve known about it, which is a long time,” Hause said after giving his performance. “I’m honored to be a part of it again. … It’s something I’m proud of, that it’s part of my home and my heritage.”
Having been a nationally touring artist for some time now, Hause added that he’s glad younger performers have a chance to shine through festivals like these.
“If you’re a young performer, you don’t know what to do or how to do it,” said Hause. “So I think it cultivates that kind of thing, where you can say, ‘Man, well maybe I can play XPN one day.’”
This was exactly the case for Southampton, New Jersey native Ginger Coyle, who opened Sunday’s festivities on the Marina Stage.
“This was a goal when I got back into my solo music back in 2010,” she said of playing at XPoNential. “I was listening to this festival on the radio that summer and every summer since, and I was like, ‘I need to get there. That’s my goal.’ Now I’m going to set bigger goals.”
Coyle performed her jazzy soulful solo material, with her raspy voice, impeccable falsetto and emotional lyrics resonating well with the audience. She alluded vaguely to armed conflict overseas before launching into her song “Let it Burn,” which she says has a different meaning to her now than it did when she wrote it five years ago.
“I wasn’t always,” Coyle said of being a politically minded artist. “Before I was like a brokenhearted, ‘Wahh me,’ emo, cry-myself-to-sleep kind of artist. I’m going through a different time right now where I want to say things because other artists are being censored, artists that are signed aren’t allowed to say what they want to say, but I’m free and I want to say what needs to be said.”
From the political to the personal, Philly favorites The Lawsuits had a big announcement to make during their set on the River Stage.
“I just got engaged,” exclaimed frontman Brian Strouse, pointing her out in the crowd. “She knows my Netflix password, she knows where I keep my spare change.”
The excitement carried over to what was the band’s biggest live show to date, and as they played through tracks from their new album Cool Cool Cool.
Man Man’s Ryan Kattner, aka Honus Honus, stood in the wings to watch The Lawsuits’ set a few hours before his own band took the Marina Stage.
“That’s what I like about Philly,” Kattner said, “I feel like everyone is doing their own thing, and it’s good to support that.”
The audience certainly showed plenty of support for Man Man, a standing-room-only crowd lining up in front of the stage well before the band’s set time. With the usual stage antics and visuals, including Kattner dawning a sequined tunic and white fur coat at during different points in the band’s set, Man Man did not disappoint fans, running through cherished tracks like “End Boss” and “Doo Right.”
Kattner said it’s bands like The Districts and The War on Drugs who are helping to expand the notoriety of the Philly local music scene.
“I just think the Philly music scene is awesome,” he said. “It’s great that more Philly bands are getting out there. People know about Philly as a place where bands come from.”
Just last year, The Districts played an afternoon set on the Marina stage at XPoNential, but came full circle to perform at the Susquehanna Bank Center and open for Band of Horses and Beck. The magnitude of this was not lost on frontman Rob Grote.
“Thank you very much to a lot of people. It will take too long to name them all,” he said from stage during the band’s set. “Just a few years ago we were playing burrito shops in Lancaster.”
It’s witnessing local success stories that mean a little bit more to the Philly music scene at large. Surely, there will be plenty more to come.
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