There are a lot of die-hards every year at XPoNential, but this year, one face in the crowd definitely stood out to those of us working backstage. Reuben Frank, who many of you might know from his reporting on the Philadelphia Eagles for Comcast SportsNet and WIP, as well as occasionally writing about music in Magnet Magacine. One of his claims to fame is his 25 Random Points column on CSN Philly, and we asked him to reprise that here on The Key, collecting things he heard and saw and thought about during #XPNFest.
1. There are lots of festivals these days — punk festivals, jam-band festivals, country festivals, rap festivals — but it struck me at some point Sunday that what makes XPoNential so special is that it’s all of the above. Where else can you see an engaging new-country trio like No Good Sister, an inventive and inspirational hip-hop collective like Hardwork Movement, a blues legend like David Bromberg and a groundbreaking psychedelic band like Dream Syndicate — all in the span of a few hours? There is no “country stage” or “hip-hop stage” or “indie stage” or “emerging artists stage.” There is just music everywhere. XPoNential’s diversity is its strength. I believe WXPN’s listeners are the kind of music fans that want to hear a little bit of everything, and XPoNential sure delivers.
2. Speaking of Dream Syndicate, how many people saw Steve Wynn in both his first XPoNential appearance and his most recent? Wynn’s fantastic old band Gutterball played the very first XPoNential Festival back in 1994, when it was a free one-day event at at Penn’s Landing called the WXPN Singer-Songwriter Weekend. He was fantastic that day, fantastic now as well.
3. One of my favorite things about XPoNential is seeing the local artists rise to the occasion performing in many cases in front of larger crowds than usual. Every Philly artist was extraordinary this weekend — Dave Hause, Cliff Hillis, Hop Along, No Good Sister, Hardwork Movement, all of them — but in particular the connection between Strand of Oaks and the crowd just felt really special. Tim Showalter has been touring the world but you can just feel how much it means to him to be back home, playing for the people who love him the most. The bond between artist and fan was a powerful thing during his set, and I don’t know this, but I’m guessing Tim preferred playing the Marina Stage to the River Stage just because of its intimacy. This is a guy who loves breaking down barriers with his music, and there were no barriers between him and the crowd Saturday afternoon. That connection was truly beautiful.
4. Also, Tim’s decision to open his set with “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” a Father John Misty cover, was brilliant. Anybody who attended Misty’s “performance” at XPoNential last year and read Tim’s heartfelt response to it on Twitter, had to just love that. “There’s some redemption for you, XPN Fest,” Tim said when he finished. And as The Key photographer Jeremy Zimmerman pointed out when they finished, Strand of Oaks now holds the record for most Father John Misty songs performed at XPoNential Festival!
5. One more note on Tim Showalter: An hour after Strand of Oaks finished, he was still standing in front of the Marina Stage with his bandmates chatting to anybody who walked by. How do you not love this guy?
6. Philly’s No Good Sister was a great way to open Sunday, and the band’s secret weapon is their lap steel player and producer, long-time Philly musical fixture Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner. How about Slo-Mo’s resume? The former Low Road frontman currently plays in Marah, who sound better than ever these days. He plays in Travel Lanes, fronted by Frank Brown, who formerly led Flight of Mavis (of which Brenner was once a member) and Buzz Zeemer. He plays with John Train. He plays Indian pop music on something called a chaturangui, a 22-string Indian slide guitar, with percussionist Hoagy Wing. Heck, he probably plays in half a dozen other bands I don’t even know about it. He’s really one of the most remarkable musicians I’ve ever seen. And it was great to see Slo-Mo on the River Stage with No Good Sister. The guy is involved in so many fantastic Philly music projects. He’s what the Philly music community is all about.
7. Speaking of The Low Road, their drummer, Mark Schreiber, also plays with the live version of No Good Sister! So that was 40 percent of a Low Road reunion gig!
8. It’s rare that my favorite XPoNential sets are at the BB&T. I always prefer smaller venues, smaller stages, more intimate gigs. But the 1-2-3 punch of Conor Oberst and Wilco Friday night and Spoon Saturday night was insane. These are three of the finest artists making music today, and to see them all in a 24-hour span on the same stage in South Jersey was overwhelming. Trying to think of a parallel. OK, on June 17, 1976, I saw Yes at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City and the next day I saw Starcastle and Gentle Giant at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. This MAY have been even better!
9. At the Wilco show at the Mann last year some woman up front was screaming for “Impossible Germany” after every song and finally, Jeff Tweedy quietly said to her, “You know, we play it every night.” And it’s fascinating to me how Nels Cline’s “Impossible Germany” solo has evolved into such a THING. It’s a true cultural phenomenon in this little world of pop music. The sense of anticipation as his solo approaches is so powerful that the crowd roars when he starts, and can you think of any other guitar solo that is so iconic that the crowd goes bonkers BEFORE it’s performed? There’s really nothing like it in pop music. Nels plays it differently every night and it’s absolutely mesmerizing the way it winds and turns and curls and twists and grows and develops and explodes before finally winding down. As we all stood and roared when he finished Friday night the uniqueness of it all really struck me. There’s nothing like this in pop music. Nels comes from the New York avant garde school, and that solo is a perfect melding of avant garde experimentation and accessible pop. It’s such a powerful thing watching him play it in person.
10. Wilco followed “Impossible Germany” Friday night with “Box Full of Letters” from A.M., and the solo on Box Full of Letters — originally recorded by the late great Jay Bennett — is played not by Cline but by Pat Sansone. As opposed to Cline’s slowly percolating four-minute-long Impossible Germany solo, it’s probably about six seconds long, but you know what? It’s also perfect, in a completely different way.
11. It was awesome how many people showed up Friday despite end-of-the-world forecasts of monsoons and flooding. These big giant dark clouds kept floating by, but the XPoNential gods seemed to direct them all north or south of Wiggins Park. It may have been pouring in Haddon Township and Pennsauken, but we miraculously avoided it all. I just saw the extended forecast for the last weekend in July of 2018 and it looks sunny, so that’s one less thing to worry about for next year!
12. OK, let’s talk about Foxygen. More specifically, Jonathan Rado. We saw dozens of incredible musicians over the weekend, but Rado, who looks like a kid you’d see making hoagies at WaWa, is so off-handedly talented it’s terrifying. He told me while I was fan-boying him in the meet and greet tent that he thinks he’s a better guitar player than piano player and he’s probably right. He’s a gifted producer (Whitney, Lemon Twigs), an inventive writer and arranger, a versatile and skilled keyboard player with a flair for the theatrical and an absolutely explosive guitar player. His blistering solo on Foxygen’s closing “Rise Up,” after Sam France had left the stage, was one of the XPoNential highlights for me. I didn’t want it to end. I see a lot of Todd Rundgren in Rado with his desire to stray from musical conventions, his musicianship on multiple instruments, his production ability, and more than anything his ability to seamlessly blend together several genres — classic American musical theater, ragtime, glam rock, prog, you name it — into an engaging whole. I don’t throw the “genius” word around too much, but Rado is right there.
13. Watching Spoon‘s set Saturday night at the BB&T and just how comfortable the band is playing huge venues now, I couldn’t help think here’s a band that freaking played Dobb’s once upon a time. But my goodness do they have the arena thing down. This is the finest Spoon live lineup ever, and their XPoNential set was a monster. The whole vibe was so cool. The sound was world-class. The lighting was exquisite. Alex Fischel looked like a madman contorting himself while creating all kinds of crazy sounds on guitar and keys. The band performed the whole set in shadows and it was probably a nightmare for the photographers trying to shoot the gig but it really created a dark, dense mood that perfectly suited the music. And I have to say, I wasn’t a huge fan of the new record when it was released but the three tracks they did from Hot Thoughts were incredible and actually even more engaging than classics like “I Turn My Camera On” and “Don’t You Evah.” Best band in the world.
14. I was so blown away by Hardwork Movement, and I’m so glad artists like this are not only part of XPoNential but so well received by a crowd that frankly is not accustomed to going to a whole lot of hip-hop shows. Was hilarious seeing Chill Moody up there wearing a Cris Carter Eagles throwback jersey. Carter’s last year with the Eagles was 1989, and Chill was born in 1986, but that’s OK! Nice homage to the Hall of Fame receiver!
15. Did you know Amos Lee drummer Freddy Berman‘s father-in-law was Irv Mondschein, an Olympian, a three-time U.S. champ in the decathlon and a track coach at Penn for more than 20 years?
16. Cliff Hillis‘ set, with Ben Arnold sitting in for a few songs, was the perfect way to start Saturday. Both those guys are flat-out Philly legends. Cliff writes such sharp, catchy pop tunes, he sings like Tommy Keene, and his band is killer. Gotta get to XPo early!
17. I totally dug the Dave Hause and the Mermaid‘s set. That band gets better every time I see them. And this fact courtesy of, John Collius: Hause has played XPoNential four times — with The Loved Ones in 2008, solo in 2012 and 2014 and with the Mermaid this past weekend! With four appearances — three of which being on the Marina Stage — he’s now eligible for induction in the XPoNential Festival Hall of Fame!
18. Huge shout-out to XPoNential sponsor Subaru, which was running a wonderful campaign through the weekend in their tent near the entrance. Subaru had a table set up with stacks of about a dozen brand-new kid’s books, and festival attendees were able to donate books in their name to the Camden school district at no cost thanks to Subaru’s support. Last I checked, they were closing in on a thousand books, much needed in the impoverished Camden school district. A great reminder than XPoNential isn’t just about music, it’s about community.
19. Ten predictions for the 2018 XPoNential Festival: Mondo Cozmo, Son Volt, Imelda May, Oliver John Rodgers, Head and the Heart, Lo Moon, Hippo Campus, Katie Ellen and BB&T headliners The National and Jason Isbell.
20. One of my favorite moments at XPoNential had nothing to do with a band, it was a chance meeting early Saturday evening at a picnic table in the BB&T outdoor plaza with a dude named Mark. We quickly discovered a mutual love for Sebadoh, Yo La Tengo, Silkworm, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Flop, Shearwater, Those Bastard Souls, GBV and Elliott Smith. We ended up chatting music for over half an hour. You don’t get many conversations in life that include phrases like, “Whoa … You saw Chavez???”
21. I’ve always loved Conor Oberst live, but, man, The Felice Brothers help transform an already remarkable live performer into something even better. Oberst always delivers. Always throws everything he has into his live performances. I don’t even know most of his songs, but it never matters when he plays live. He’s that brilliant. And his anti-Trump rant was a thing of beauty!
22. Every year, there’s that one band at XPoNential that kind of comes out of nowhere and blows your mind. This year for me it was Bromberg. I saw him in college and he was fine, but that was a long time ago. He’s a total pro and has a kick-ass band, so I knew he’d be good. But I had no idea what I was in store for. I got up along the rail and like everyone else was instantly captivated by Bromberg and his five amazing backing musicians. Their set of bluegrassy blues just got more and more intense the longer they played, and the revolving solos got more and more inspired, each one followed by louder and louder roars from the crowd. The band was feeding off the crowd, and the crowd was just getting more and more revved up. David is such a skilled slide player, at one point, he performed a conversation between a man and the woman he’s trying to leave, where Bromberg was the guy, and his slide guitar was the woman, and I’ll be damned if you couldn’t understand every word she was saying through that guitar. I have never seen anything like it before. I don’t even know how to explain it. But Bromberg was riveting, and I’m going to make sure I don’t wait another 30 years before seeing him again.
23. There were phenomenal musicians all over the place this weekend, but the guy that blew my mind more than anybody was Nate Grower, Bromberg’s insanely gifted fiddle player. Good lord. I’ve never seen anybody play like that. True Devil-Went-Down-to-Georgia stuff. The unique thing about Nate is that he obviously has world-class chops — he can play crazy fast when he wants and he sure showed off that part of it a few times Sunday — but he’s equally comfortable playing slower and melodically and just fitting into the band. Every time he soloe’d Sunday afternoon, the crowd went into a frenzy. The whole band is world-class, but Grower was something to behold. A true master.
24. Everyone knows there are no encores at XPoNential, but when Bromberg finished we all just stood there screaming and it just got louder and louder and it was such a cool moment. We weren’t going to stop until they came back out, which they finally did after like five minutes. You have hundreds of strangers who spontaneously just decided as a group that we were all going to stand there and yell and clap and scream until this band was allowed to come back to the stage. You never know when those unforgettable musical moments are going to happen, but that was certainly one for me. Later that night, the Record Company got an encore as well. Great night. Great crowd.
25. Finally this: I can’t even fathom what goes into organizing a festival of this magnitude. Booking the bands, getting the venues ready, working with promoters and managers and concessions and sponsors and security and who knows what else. It’s crazy. Everybody involved with the 24th annual XPoNential Festival deserves boundless credit for pulling this off. All I want to know is this: When is next year’s festival?
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