Saturday, August 1, 2009

XPoNential Music Festival - We Could Stick Around and See this Night Through

Aaaand we're back, with part two of the 2009 'XPN Fest coverage!

Before we get into that, though, I feel like I should make note of the biggest difference from previous festivals I attended: the insane crowds. I seem to remember being able to wander over to the second stage throughout the day and still find a spot of grass to sit with a decent view of the stage. Not so this year, when the previously ample grass quickly became just a mass of people on lawn chairs and picnic blankets. Annoying for me, to be sure, but more people buying tickets is certainly a good thing overall.Well, another day, another opening slot by a local artist whom I only know by name. In this case, it was Andrew Lipke. I only caught the tail-end of his set, but it was a little louder than I was expecting.Wow, the kids in Perkasie sure seemed to be having a great time. Their music isn't easy to categorize, although their blurb on WXPN's website calls it "vaudeville folk," which I suppose is as good a descriptor as any. There was lots of dancing, foot-stomping, washboard-playing, and I have to say that their energy was contagious.Donna the Buffalo was the jammiest band I saw play the festival and, not coincidentally, the one that bored me the most. Please, don't waste a perfectly good Bo Diddley beat by stretching it out to epic length and playing a string of nondescript solos over it. The audience seemed heavy on the aging hippie demographic, though, so I guess this wasn't supposed to appeal to me anyway.

This was, however, the third band to play an accordian after They Might Be Giants and the Hold Steady, which goes to show what a diverse instrument that can be.Eric, one-half of Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, is English? News to me!With Steve Forbert and the Windfall Prophets, we once again have a performer with an enthusiastic crowd and a single song that I recognize. He sounded kind of like he was slurring his words when he talked between songs, which was kind of amusing.I'll admit that I don't remember much about Serena Ryder's set, except that she mentioned a previous gig where it was "pissing rain," and then said that it was OK to say that because the language guidelines passed out to the artists said it was fine to say "piss" as long as it did not refer to bodily functions. This answered a question that I've always had, which is whether people performing live on the radio get a detailed list of what they can and can't say without incurring FCC fines. Guster went one step further and posted the whole memo on their Twitter. It's surprisingly -- and hilariously -- thorough.Speaking of foul language, the only knowledge I had about John Wesley Harding was that David Dye had once played his song "July 13th 1985," then had to apologize for not reading the lyrics ahead of time and letting "fuck" and "shit" go unbleeped. Anyway, it turns out that I really like this guy! He's got it all: an English accent, amusing anecdotes and banter (he remarked that he was doing a meet & greet later, which is unusual for him because he usually meets or greets, but rarely both), clever songs, and a singing voice that sounds a bit like Elvis Costello. He also brought Amy Rigby & Wreckless Eric onstage for a song, because those Brits all know each other or something.

(Oh! One more thing I like about John Wesley Harding: he calls his band the English UK, in a self-aware nod to the English Beat and Charlatans UK and any other British bands that have to change their names when they arrive in the States.)I only stuck around for a couple of songs, but I must say that the music of Gandalf Murphy is not nearly as dire as I was expecting it to be, considering that he's a guy named Gandalf who claims to hail from a imaginary country called Slambovia.
Aimee Mann got an extremely enthusiastic reception throughout her performance, and she seemed genuinely touched by all of the affection. She said at the beginning that she was doing a semi-unplugged thing, with two backup musicians switching among several instruments depending on the song, and she also said that she would be playing songs that she didn't typically play live. I love Aimee Mann, I really do, and she seems like such a genuinely nice, down-to-earth person, but I just wasn't really into her set. I think part of my problem is that I like her best when she's working with Jon Brion, and when you take away those lush arrangements, it robs the songs of a key element. Sorry, Aimee! I'll try to see you some other time and see if that works better for me.
My knowledge of Peter Bjorn and John doesn't go much deeper than their hits, which tend to be fairly mellow. Beyond that, I remember reading about a troubled set at this year's SXSW festival, so my expectations were fairly low; I thought that at best it would be a pleasant trifle, and at worst it would be a train wreck. Turns out that I had "Nothing to Worry About" (see what I did there?). Most of PB&J's songs rock harder than I would have expected, and in concert they turn into windmilling, stage-stalking rock gods. The highlight for me (and for most of the other people close to the stage, I'm betting) was during "Young Folks," when Peter jumped off the stage and sang most of the song while walking around in the pit.

No day of outdoor music would be complete without a torrential downpour, though, and dark clouds began rolling in as the roadies were setting up for Peter Bjorn and John's set. Fortunately, it didn't cut their performance short, even though by the time they left the stage it was the familiar mix of rain, wind, and lightning that I knew so well from the previous night. It was an unwelcome interruption, but it passed quickly, and the show did go on.
Here's a tip for any funk/R&B/soul bands out there: you can pack your set with as many original songs as you like, but as long as you open with a great cover of "I Want You Back," the audience is going to think you're the greatest thing ever. Take a lesson from The Revelations featuring Tre' Williams, who did just that. Their songs weren't bad, but nothing stuck with me the way those opening bars from the Jackson 5 did.

Guster is one of those bands that, at some point between when I entered college and when I graduated, became extremely popular with a certain subset of people. Unfortunately, that subset seemed to have a great deal of overlap with people who were huge fans of Dave Matthews, so I have always looked at them with a certain degree of skepticism. Seeing them live, though, has mostly cured me of that apprehension. I actually do enjoy the handful of Guster songs that I know, and the fact that they weren't jumping-off points for tedious jams was refreshing. (The band did briefly break into an intentionally tuneless improv for a little while, with the lead singer joking that this was what improvisation sounds like by people who don't know how to play.)

The music could not be much more different, but the surrounding me at the show reminded me a lot of the die-hard Hold Steady fans I'd encountered the previous night. Here were people who had memorized lyrics sheets and were enthusiastically singing along, and familiar with rituals that were foreign to me, like tossing ping-pong balls onstage. The fact that all but the most devoted fans had left during the storm lent the event a degree of intimacy that is extremely rare at a large outdoor festival, and being close to the stage, surrounded by the happy members of a tribe to which I did not belong, was a surprisingly joyous finish to my weekend.

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