XPoNential Music Festival 2015

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Saturday at the XPN Festival

XPN festival was this past weekend. It is a festival I look forward to each year. There are always great bands, the weather is usually outstanding and you get to spend two full days looking at one of the best Philly skylines views around. There were some bands I was looking forward to hearing and some I had never heard of, so a good mix.

Amy and I caught the noon ferry over and was by no means the first ones there. Even though the gates opened at 11:30, we could not find a spot to set-up camp at 12:15.   We found a shady spot, set-up our chairs and started roaming. They have the music set-up alternating stages, so you never have to choose one band over another. Growing up a third child and being the inventor of FOMO (fear of missing out), I really appreciate that. I once spent a Jazz fest in New Orleans convinced I was missing the better band, though I picked one great one after one great one. After I calmed down a bit, I ended spending one whole day in the gospel tent (where I did not recognize one performer) and was a better woman for it. Anyway, no decisions had to be made at XPN, you just between the River and Marina stages.

As Amy and I made our way from the ferry to the stages, we heard some screeching. It is unclear if it was a band or not, but I am not going to count them/ her/ it. So, the first band I saw was Field Report. Nice, pleasant, good enough way to start. Somewhat unforgettable since I have literally no notes about him. Correction- totally unforgettable. As it turns out, I have more notes about someone I mistook for Cole Redding on the ferry on the way over (story for another day) than I do about this band. We then made our way back to the main stage to hear Calexico. They were good, very good.

I have heard about this band a lot in the last month. I almost invited people to see them with me for my birthday, then friends left my party to go see them, then I realized that they sing my favorite song, Going to Acapulco, from the “I’m Not There” soundtrack, so, overall very excited to hear them. And I was not disappointed. They have this tight band and really incorporate a mixture of styles, including some jazz, southwest influence, afro American drumming, singer songwriter, and, possibly, salsa. A big mash-up that totally works. They were tight and it is always good to get your dancing on by 1:00 pm on a Saturday.

As I go through my notes, I realize there were some bands who I just did not seem overly impressed by or were noteworthy, literally there were no notes written. Don’t get me wrong, a day of non-noteworthy bands on a gorgeous day taking in the Philly skyline is better than any day in an office. But for the purposes of this post, I will just remark on the bands that I really enjoyed and why.

After Calexico, I really loved First Aid Kit, though I kept calling them Field Trip. Seems like the same name to me. They were these two young lovely Swedish sisters who were equally comfortable rocking out as they were singing a powerful yet quiet acapella song. Their version of “America” by Paul Simon was awe inspiring and I always love seeing young performers do their interpretation of older, somewhat obscure, songs. Feel likes a sign of respect to me. They also seemed to really like each other, the rest of the band and just playing of everyone. Lastly, they called their mom to the stage for recognition. C’mon, who doesn’t love that?

Son Little played on the river stage and he seemed to be a crowd favorite and his set seemed to feed off of the energy of the crowd. I was listening to Lord Huron as I made my way back to the ferry. I would love to see him/them in a longer show as I felt I did not get nearly enough time to appreciate the music. Same for Delta Rae. They are a very fun group and regardless if I mix them up with other bands that have Rae or Delta in their name, I must see them on their own.

Sunday at the XPN festival

Susan and I got a nice early start, got over to the festival in time to take advantage of remote parking lots. I am not gonna lie, it is a pain to see shows in Camden. After the previous day of taking planes, trains and automobiles, I was more than willing to pay a premium for parking just so I could spend more time at the show and not stressing about schedules and figuring out my next zig zag and transportation mode to get around.

Another beautiful day on the waterfront and we were there exactly in time for Lone Bellow, who I was psyched to see. I had heard of these guys and was planning on seeing them during the winter at Underground Arts, but they sold out immediately. Their next show was at Union Transfer, which is a good indication of their rising popularity.

These three musicians, who call their sound “Brooklyn country music,” incorporate folk, gospel and blues while completely rocking out. At one point, the lead guy was coming off stage to try and get into the audience and the gal was in the zone playing an electric mandolin. I did not even know there was such a thing as an electric mandolin. More surprisingly, I loved the sound. They got completely caught up in their set and the audience went nuts in appreciation. I was so glad they lived up to my expectations. They are returning in November (Union Transfer) and will definitely make a point of seeing them then.

We then met up with a bunch of folks and was hanging out by our little camp. My friend Chris, one of my MBFs (music best friends), got there later than expected and was itching to see music, so I met her over at the Marina Stage to see Bombino. I had no idea of these guys and was incredibly pleased when I happened upon them to find this full blown band in glittery, matching Bedouin wear. Turns out they are from the Sahara desert. From further research, it turns out that Bombino is the lead singer and a raw and hypnotic guitarist channeling Jerry Garcia but with funk. Check out his bio here, I cannot do him the justice he deserves. I would have to say that this was my best find and the band nugget I took away. What I love about the XPN festival is that while I am excited about seeing bands I know and what they do live, I always come away with a brand new band that I can’t stop replaying in my head afterwards that was not even on my radar. There is some damn good music out there.

Making our way back to the River Stage for Courtney Barnett, Chris and I decided to head into the “belly of the beast” and get as close as we could. I love wandering around during shows and seeing the music from different angles. That almost always includes getting as close as I can. I know some folks are not into that, but I just kind of burrow and burrow until I get where I want to go. I am polite and always excuse myself and sometimes I keep burrowing so much that I dump myself out of the other side of where I started. I get pretty focused on the task at hand. I was leading Chris (I always lead) and as we made our way, I hear her say ‘there it is” and there it was. It just always kind of happens that when you are doing your thing to find your spot, the spot finds you and it will be perfect. We settled in. I turned around and asked the gentleman behind me if he could still see or if he needed me to remove my hat. His answer was “No, way, I saw what you were doing and started following you on the outer ring. You are awesome. No need to move or take your hat off, I am just thankful you got me here.”

Back to Courtney Barnett. My friend Michael had seen her in June and said it was the best show he had seen all year. And he goes to a lot of shows and does not exaggerate. I knew I was going to be in for a treat. Bottom line, she is the future, and hope for, old-time, wailing guitar and political lyrics rock and roll. She is a Patti Smith and Mick Jagger and all about the substance and not the style. She wailed on her guitar for 45 minutes straight as she strode across the stage. The only time I saw her face was when she was shaking her sweaty hair out the way to scream into the mic. Outstanding. Just outstanding.

After that exhilarating set, we went over to see Kopecky (formerly Kopecky Family Band). We did the opposite of getting as close as we could and stood behind the stage, which was a cool view. You see the musicians doing their thing from a different angle and see the crowd’s reaction. I hope these guys get really popular. They seem like really nice people, have great banter and energy and are good musicians with great vocals. Loved seeing them. We headed back to the main stage for the Indigo Girls and they were exactly the Indigo Girls. We left during their set.

The number one question I got over the weekend from folks who know of my year long quest was, “How will I count a festival?” Will it count as one show? Or will it count as individual shows to reflect the number of bands I saw? I am still not committing to making a hard and fast rule. When people ask, I say a lot will depend on where I am at come May 29, 2016. Though, I was pretty clear about saying I wanted to see 50 shows in the year, not 50 bands. Still there will be a time where one concert or event may really encompass two distinct shows and can, thus, be counted as 2. Who knows, at the end of the year, I may tally how many bands I saw this year, but for now I will just keeping track of shows. So, even though I saw 12 bands, the XPN festival counts as 2 shows.

36 shows to go, 311 days left…

35 shows to go, 310 days left…

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Diana Krall

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An embarrassment of riches, I thought, when trying to figure out what show to see Friday night. I could, literally, have my pick of what show to attend. There was the opening day of XPN festival at Wiggins Park, there was a hard core punk (you know to test my new found love of punk) thing going on at Johnny Brenda’s, something at MOCA, Wanda Jackson at Sellersville Theater, etc. Almost overwhelming, but choose I did.

Friday night was only the most perfect weather one could hope for in July. Summer evening, no humidity, bit of a breeze and not a rain cloud in sight. We all know how much I enjoy the Mann Music Center, so the weather in combination with Diana Krall, the Philadelphia Orchestra and bring your own picnic policy won over all the other options. And, boy did I chose well.

The Mann has a policy that when the orchestra plays, you can bring your own picnic. Pretty arbitrary, but a policy nonetheless. I love seeing the orchestra a couple times a year there, but for the past couple of years the season has been getting shorter and shorter. In 1995, I worked for a city councilwoman and we were given free tickets for the orchestra series, which played weekly for 9 weeks. That was awesome. I saw the orchestra a lot during the 90s. I guess since the Mann has increased their other concert offerings, they have decreased their orchestra offerings and you really have to plan an evening specifically for the orchestra.   I knew that Diana Krall was going to be there, but since Susan and I had seen her awhile back I was not compelled to see her again. However, I then read that her back-up band was the Philadelphia Orchestra. Let me repeat that so it resonates. The Philadelphia Orchestra was her back-up band. Back-up. Band. Philadelphia. Orchestra. I think you get the picture. Off we went.

Tons of tickets left so no trouble getting in, though I was looking for my friend Roddy who told me at the Robert Plant show that he would be “working” the parking lot all summer long. Guess it was his night off. We invited folks to join us and our friend Kristin, the rock star that she is, was driving back from upstate New York and said she would be there just in time. Serious effort, I mean I was coming from the city and was anxious about the drive. We settled in for the evening on that plush lawn with homemade coleslaw, babagounash, and salsa courtesy of Susan’s magic green garden thumb and culinary skills and Federal Donuts Fried Chicken, because it is exactly halfway between my office and our house.

Diana Krall has a new album, Wallflower, which includes covers of songs that she loves from her childhood. Basically, stuff I grew up on, like the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Mamas and Papas, etc. And she did them justice. But I was surprised by her speaking voice. She has this low sultry, smoky voice that sounds like whiskey slowly being poured into a glass. Her songs were sung in that style, but her speaking voice was almost the opposite, higher and a little screechy. I do not remember that at all and Susan thought she may have been sick and then someone else mentioned that she may have had surgery for something recently. I guess she was saving her real voice for her songs and was not into straining it for chatting in between. It was just odd, especially after a recent discussion about vocal fry and uptalking (you can hear a great Fresh Air story on that very topic here). Additionally, I love her voice (the singing one), but I love her piano playing as well, which is sometimes hard to completely appreciate when you are listening to an album. Last time, she was rocking her piano, putting Jerry Lewis to shame. This time, it was way mellower and there were no piano rock and rolling I was expecting. I understand it was a different kind of show, but I missed that raucous playing. What I did love, and was absolutely moved by, was her most excellent version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” because 1) It may be the greatest love sad song of all time; 2) Joni Mitchell is the bomb and 3) Diana Krall was born to sing it.

Though there were no Elvis Costello duets, at the end of the night, I was extremely pleased with my evening pick. I had a wonderful time in a great setting eating and drinking great food and wine and spending time with my love and friends. It does not get much better than that. A great evening to kick off the rest of the music weekend ahead.

By the way, we were asked not to take any photos. So, we only have this forbidden one taken by Susan of me in full Mann mode.

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37 shows to go, 312 days left…

The Mekons

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There is nothing like a heat wave in Philadelphia.  You know what I am talking about.  When it is an effort to even put one foot in front of the other and you are wondering to yourself why you were complaining about the cold a few short months earlier.  You have a choice of how to survive a heat wave.  You can either try to limit any physical activity and sit quietly in a darkened cool room and focus on breathing or you could venture out to a sold show in a very small club.  I chose the latter.

On Monday night, Susan and I ventured to the Boot and Saddle in South Philly to see The Mekons.  Full disclosure up front, I was not into punk or new wave in the eighties.  In fact, I was really only into music that came out during the Vietnam War or the Grateful Dead.  There was no room to explore any other type of music.  Obviously, as I get older and less militant, I have come to appreciate all types of music and try not to limit myself to one genre.  However, that was not the case in the 80s.  All this is to say that The Mekons were not even on my radar during those early years.  I was excited to see these guys, because so many friends love their music and I wanted to experience them for myself.

First, the Boot and Saddle.  It was this old man dive bar until couple years ago when the folks behind Union Transfer and R5 Productions revitalized into a small nightclub.  It has both types of music- country and western.  signThe sound is awesome and holds about 200 people.  It is small, I mean, tight small.  Our only real complaint and really this is a vertically challenged person’s complaint, is that there is no tilt to the floor.  So, if you are in the back, you are not really seeing much except the tall guy in front of you.  Though, on Monday, my friend Andrew mentioned his brilliant idea of setting up a standing room floor plan that would work like a half pipe.  Tall people would stand against the wall, short people would be smack in the middle and the varying levels of height people would fill in moving from the middle out to the walls.  That way, everyone could see.  Absolutely brilliant, but, alas, not implemented Monday night.

A really fun thing about the Boot and Saddle is that there is no back entrance to the stage.  The musicians come upstairs from the basement Green Room and have to walk through the crowd to get to the stage.  The first time there, Aimee Mann brushed by me so quickly and unexpectedly that that I did not even have a chance to shout “I hate Sarah McLaughlin.” (In case you don’t get that reference, check out Portlandia Season 1, Episode 3.  Trust me, you will not regret it.)

The Boot and Saddle shows always start on time, which I completely appreciate being 50 and out on a Monday night.  Trust me, I was not the oldest person at this show by a long shot, so everyone needed to get home, including the band members who mentioned they needed to get on the road by 10:30.   By the way, since it was an old person’s show, I saw about 40 people I knew, which is always fun.

The Mekons took the stage on time and immediately rocked out.  They describe themselves as a punk band turned alt-country collective and there are about 8 members.  They have been doing this for 38 years and have never been famous.  They live all over the place, have full time  jobs; some in music, some not and it is really clear that they not only have been love playing but loving playing together.  John Langford and Sally Timms, I guess you would say take the lead and do most of the on stage banter.  They are just fun.  Great sense of humor, political and great interaction with the crowd.  But when they are playing, they are playing.  I guess I was most surprised was that punk can be silly and light.  I think I never listened to punk because I just thought I was being yelled at the whole time.  If these guys were angry, and some of their songs were definitely angry at Margaret Thatcher, I did not feel bad about myself when listening to them.

I had known of John Langford and was not disappointed in his performance and banter.  In fact, I even wore my Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA t-shirt he designed in his honor.  Sally, however was awesome.  I am not sure exactly what is so appealing about that woman.  It could be her voice, her stage presence, or it could be that she kept her ear plugs in a little purse stuffed in her bra when she doesn’t need them.  Regardless, I know there were quite a few tweets that night from adoring women who wanted to be her “when they grew up.”

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I found myself dancing almost immediately, singing along and copying the goofy hand motions during one of their songs.  I think, though my favorite song, was the last one they played.  I am not even sure the name, but it was totally punk.  And I knew it without knowing how I knew it.  At that point, I really missed what I missed during the 80s.

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38 shows to go, 316 days left…

West Philadelphia Orchestra

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There is a cool little place near us, Underground Arts, that has really become a great venue to see shows. In the beginning, it was just kind of a basement and I actually got lost once (think Spinal Tap in the Detroit stadium) at the end of a Fringe late night cabaret trying to find my way out. It is still a basement, but it has come a long way since then, or I have, and there are some really fun acts that come through there. Additionally, last December, one of the most excting events took palce there which I still marvel about to this day, the book release party for Ode to Billie Joe by Tara Murtha.   To celebrate the book release, she put together a band to play the full album start to finish. It was a magical evening and I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Underground Arts who allowed that to happen. But I digress… On the start of the holiday weekend, we had the chance to see one of our favorite local bands.

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We invited our friend Michael to join us since he had never seen The West Philadelphia Orchestra. They describe themselves as a brass Balkan dance band. Their eastern European influence includes Romanian ballads, Macedonian folk dance songs, Bulgarian wedding music and Klezmer. Their 12-15 members are joyous, raucous and it is impossible to be sad when listening to their music. Half the time I am not even sure what language their lead singer is singing, but I can’t seem to stand still. Inevitably they will also end up leaving the stage and in the in the middle of the dance floor playing, which just gets everyone even more riled up. You leave the show, sweaty, happy, a little deaf and a bit dazed and unsure of exactly what you just witnessed, in other words, totally fun! If you have the chance to see these guys, do it, I will gladly refund your ticket price if you do not feel the same joy I experience every time I see them. By the way, Michael will not need a refund as he thanked us on our way out into the pre holiday night.

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39 shows to go, 334 days left…