Pop-Break Live: XPoNential Fest 2014, Day 1

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What a weekend.

This year’s XPoNential Music Festival presented by Subaru played host to an excess of the typical classic rock, folk, country and blues acts favored by the public radio station. Nevertheless, just about every band compensated for the festival’s lack of sonic diversity with boundless energy and unforgettable performances.

Lucius kicked off Friday’s festivities on the River Stage with a set full of dramatic, sweeping gestures. Whether it was the band’s extensive use of percussion (as on “Genevieve”) or their powerful five-part vocal harmonies (as on “Go Home”), Lucius dazzled the early crowd. Be on the lookout for these Brooklynites.

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Over on the Jersey Arts Marina Stage, Houndmouth set the status quo for several of the weekend’s bands—shaggy hair and even shaggier riffs. The baby-faced Indiana foursome left it all on the stage in a textbook display of down-and-dirty country rock. I have to applaud XPN for conveniently staggering the festival schedule between two stages. You’d have to try pretty hard to miss a performance. The gesture seemed as driven by artistic integrity as it was by convenience—some bands were best suited for the larger, more daunting River Stage, while others flourished on the comparatively intimate Marina Stage.

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But no one commanded the Friday crowd quite like The Hold Steady. Jittery, flailing frontman Craig Finn is the perfect conduit for the type of hefty instrumentals the band has refined over the past ten years. Finn barked out his litanies with eye-popping, vein-bursting aplomb, resting only for the lilting balladry of “The Ambassador”. Not to be outdone, the guitar-slinging team of Steve Selvidge and Tad Kubler played in perfect harmony. Their juxtaposition of shimmering lead lines with crunchy power chords was a sound to behold. (Check out Nick’s interview with The Hold Steady, here.)

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Meanwhile, legendary blues harmonica player James Cotton let his smokin’ hot Blues Band seize the spotlight for a few tunes before taking the stage to prove his 70 years of success are no fluke. The backing musicians gave Cotton an introduction befitting a Blues Hall of Fame member.

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The late crowd roared for Colombian guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela as the last act of the night hit the stage. Any remaining doubts about their position as festival headliners were quashed by the duo’s infectious combination of rock ’n roll stage presence and virtuosic, flamenco-tinged compositions.

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Friday was certainly the most varied night of the festival—and a fun way to kick off the weekend—but the best was yet to come.

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