Sunday, July 22, 2007

XPoNential Music Festival - Saturday

I spent most of my second day at Wiggins Park hanging around the Marina Stage, partly so I could catch some of the lesser-known acts and partly because the lineup on the main stage had very little to appeal to me. For the second day in a row, I arrived too late to see the buzzed-about local band I was hoping to catch, in this case Bucks County's Illinois. By the time I got there, the tour van was already packing up to haul ass to Lollapalooza. Good luck, fellas!

Brett Dennen
What would happen if Ron Weasley dropped out of Hogwarts, started listening to a lot of Jack Johnson, and put together a band? He might look and sound a lot like Brett Dennen, the latest in a long line of generic post-jam-band funky guitar-playing white boys. His opening song, "She's Mine," is essentially Bob Dylan's "I Want You" on Valium, and nothing he played after that changed my opinion of him. Judging by the goofily dancing people in front of the stage, though, I would say that mine was the minority opinion.

Kim Richey
It's hard for me to find a critical word about Kim Richey's breezy country songs. Nothing she sang is likely to stick with me very long, but it was a wholly pleasant way to spend a half-hour.

Fionn Regan
"There's my helicopter; I've got to go" cracked Fionn Regan as he wrapped up his final song just as a low-flying chopper happened to be passing overhead. He may not be at that level of fame yet, but he was just shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, where he'll be competing against such unknown artists as Amy Winehouse and the Arctic Monkeys. The event program bragged that Fionn had been compared to Bob Dylan, which is always hyperbole, even though he seemed to be dressing the part. His finger-picking style of guitar playing is really closer to Nick Drake or, dare I say it, Richard Thompson. His album The End of History may be named after a Francis Fukuyama book, and he may give lyrical shout-outs to The Adventures of Augie March, but he clearly has a sense of humor too, as evidenced by the music videos on his website.

Ryan Shaw
I only caught a little bit of Ryan Shaw's set. He's got a dynamite voice, but I wish he'd tone down the implicit comparisons of himself to Al Green and Sam Cooke (he opened his set with "A Change is Gonna Come"). Leave the cover songs and imitation to the American Idols, Ryan.

Jesca Hoop
Jesca Hoop, the much blogged-about, former Waits family nanny had the most unusual set of the festival, for a few reasons. For one thing, she wasn't backed by a traditional rhythm section but rather by a drum machine and electric piano, while she played a funky looking guitar that sounded like a Japanese koto. The set was also remarkable for the way it seemed to be heading. In the middle of her first song, Jesca turned to the soundboard and said "I'm sorry, we have to stop," apparently because of sound trouble. She reconsidered and kept playing, but the problems seemed to leave her flustered and she was having trouble keeping her concentration. I got the sickening feeling that I was about to witness a train wreck. She put down her guitar after a couple of songs, and when she just started singing, the difference was enormous. The Joanna Newsom-style warble she had been using vanished in favor of something much fuller and stronger. I had her pegged as an electro-folk musician, but she's much closer to a cabaret singer, as she gestured, struck poses, and emoted through the majority of her set. She remarked at one point that she and her band were at the end of a month-long tour and she was really looking forward to going home, so I'll write off her erratic performance to fatigue. Here's hoping that once she rests up she'll be able to hit the road again without the technical difficulties.

What Happened Next...
So I decided to skip Los Lonely Boys. I know it's unfair to judge a band based on their hit single, but I feel I'm justified in this case. So, I headed to the food court area and was sitting on a bench eating a gyro and drinking a beer when, about 30 feet to my right, this happened. Considering how crowded the place was, it's really a miracle that more people weren't hurt. The whole scene was surreal, as people scrambled around to make sure there were no major injuries and others tried to upright a generator that was leaking gasoline, and all the while Los Lonely Boys played on in the background.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
The owl statues perched on the amplifiers couldn't help but call to mind one of Ms. Potter's more famous namesakes. "It's kind of a big week for Potters, isn't it?" she quipped. "Tell Harry to watch his back." A bit of an unlikely boast, but probably no harder to believe than seeing a twenty-three year old white girl from Vermont belting out songs like a Delta bluesman. Anyone who plays a flying-V guitar can't be accused of being a subtle performer, and as the utterly crushworthy Grace switched between guitar and Hammond organ, she vamped across the stage, hitting her hips with a tambourine, swinging a microphone Rogert Daltrey-style, arching her back until she was looking behind her, and closing her set with a four-person drum solo before returning for an encore with "Come Together." J.K. Rowling's wizard may have commanded the headlines on Saturday, but for an hour that night, there was only one Potter on this audience's mind.

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