Tuesday, July 28, 2009

XPoNential Music Festival - We Knew That We'd Arrived at a Unified Scene

Last year I was underwhelmed by the lineup and skipped the whole thing, but last weekend I was back at Wiggins Park in Camden for WXPN's annual summer festival. As usual, I had both my camera (now with video capability!) and a sack full of devastatingly snarky put-downs. Actually, not so much the second part; as I was watching most of the performers, I realized that my comments could be boiled down to (1) I'm not really familiar with this singer/band, and (2) they are pleasant enough, but not especially memorable. To avoid repeating this point ad nauseum, I'll try to keep things nice and short.
Ah, the first Main Stage set of the day, which seems to always go to a local artist whose name I have heard a thousand times, but couldn't hum one of their tunes to save my life. This year, it was Sharon Little. Her band was well-dressed.
I don't think I'd ever heard of East Hundred before. I thought that they sounded a bit like Interpol, but it's hard to hold that against them since it's not like Interpol is doing a lot with their sound these days.
I was surprised by how early Yeasayer's set was scheduled; I remember "2080" getting some pretty heavy airplay last year. Then again, they did seem to fall off my radar rather quickly. If I had to guess, I'd say that since their sound is sort of reminiscent of TV on the Radio, they were filling a niche that disappeared once Dear Science was released in the fall. Anyway, their set was pretty good, and made me want to check out the rest of All Hour Cymbals. One highlight for me was that one of their two drummers (who was wearing a backpack for some reason) was, as far as I can remember, the only person I've seen play a drum kit while standing up. Judging by the amount of pale skin showing on the lead singer, though, I'd say that this is a band that is not accustomed to playing outdoors in the mid-afternoon.

(This is where I went to watch Illinois, who I missed last time I was here. Apparently, though, I didn't take any pictures of them, so it's pretty much like it never happened at all.)
I first became aware of Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three back in '06 when I heard their superbly catchy "Cindy It Was Always You" (co-written, strangely enough, by crime novelist/The Wire scribe George Pelecanos). I was surprised to see that Wynn himself is a bit older than I pictured him, and some rudimentary Googling reveals that he's had a career that stretches back to the early 80s. Those extra years didn't slow him down, though, as Wynn and his band turned in the most rock'n'roll show I'd seen thus far in the day. His guitarist was especially animated, at one point thrusting his guitar towards one of the amps and playing the feedback like a theremin. Steve was also the first (but not last) performer that I saw use the massive bank of loudspeakers stacked in the pit as an extension of the stage.Hey, are you a moderately talented local band looking to upgrade from the second stage and your crummy time slot? Just invite Kevin Bacon to join your band! It certainly worked for the Bacon Brothers. It's not really like these guys are worthy of great derision, but let's be honest: they wouldn't attract a crowd of nearly the same size if one of the members were not the star of Wild Things and Tremors. Heck, I went to see them in college just to say I was one degree away from the guy. But you've gotta give them credit for gaining the legitimacy that eluded Dogstar or 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. They also brought some Mummers onstage for their final song, which was a nice touch, even if you couldn't really hear them.

(OK, couple things I just learned on Wikipedia: 30 Odd Foot of Grunts changed its name in 2005 to The Ordinary Fear of God, and the Bacon Brothers are also a trio of feared Canadian gangsters.)

Here's the thing about Pete Yorn: I only own his first album, and aside from that I only know one of his songs ("Crystal Village"). And while I wouldn't rank musicforthemorningafter as one of my favorite records, every time I listen to it I find myself surprised by just how strong an album it is. Hearing those songs performed live (along with a great New Order cover), surrounded by some highly devoted fans, may have permanently recalibrated my opinion of him. Who knows, I might even pick up a second CD.

When I was actually at the show, I thought that his bassist (the guy at the right in that photo) looked a lot like Christian Bale, though I may have been wrong.
There's not a whole lot of overlap between stuff I liked when I was 9 and stuff I like today, but my affection for They Might Be Giants has remained a constant. I admit that I haven't paid as much attention to them in recent years, and while I'm probably not going to be picking up any of their children's CDs anytime soon, I certainly can't begrudge them the Grammy awards and (probable) sales figures that those projects have netted them. Judging from their set, their kiddie music is just as hooky and fun as the rest of their catalog, just with more educational lyrics (though even that's not such a big switch; this is, after all, a band that has taught me much about James K. Polk, James Ensor, dead uncle Allotheria, and the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy). As with Pete Yorn, TMBG is one of those performers I tend to undervalue, until I realize that I know almost every song word-for-word, and once the band left, that there were a good half-dozen more songs that I wish they'd had time for. Plus: confetti cannons!Okay, enough of this prelude. The real reason I went to this thing was to see The Hold Steady, one of my favorite contemporary bands and, by all accounts, a group of tremendous performers. I overheard the haters out in force throughout the day, talking about how overrated the band was and that they sucked live, so I was nervously preparing myself to be disappointed. And in the end, I was a fairly let down, but it had nothing to do with the guys onstage.

So how is seeing the Hold Steady live different from listening to their albums? Well, musically, it's pretty much identical (albeit much louder, of course). This isn't a band that opens up their songs with extended solos or lots of vocal ad-libs. Rather, the Hold Steady live experience is defined by other things. First, there's keyboardist Franz Nikolai (above, in the snazzy white suit), he of the trademark mustache and between-songs mugging. On top of that, there's the hilarious vision of lead singer Craig Finn, a man who looks like more like a CPA than a rock frontman, strutting around the stage like Mick Jagger, gesturing and mouthing words at the audience, and singing his lyrics with such passion that you can see the spit flying out of his mouth. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this show, though, was being crowded among hundreds of die-hard fans who know every word to every song, and are not at all shy about belting them out. It's hard not to have a good time when you're surrounded by other people who are having a tremendous time.

So why the disappointment? Well, as the band played, the weather got more and more ominous, with rain starting to fall and the wind starting to blow. This all culminated during Tad Kubler's awesome guitar solo in "Lord, I'm Discouraged," as the wind sent leftover confetti swirling through the air, and the audience members had their hair blown back as though they were cartoon characters facing an extremely loud rock concert. It was an incredible moment. To give you an idea of how wild things were getting, here's a clip of the end of that song, plus the intro to "Hornets! Hornets!" Check out the rippling banner behind the stage, the debris blowing past the camera, the rain streaking across the spotlights, the wind noise, and the insane fervor of the crowd:

Sadly, after that song was over, the show had to be shut down due to some approaching thunderstorms (The storms never materialized, but I certainly don't fault the folks in charge for taking the cautious route). The band had already played for about an hour, and would probably have only had about thirty more minutes before the noise curfew went into effect. Still, it was sad to see a show that great end even a minute early.

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