Pop-Break Live: XPoNential Festival 2014, Day 3

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The final day of XPoNential Music Festival presented by Subaru featured perhaps the strongest performances and the largest crowds of an already jam-packed weekend.

Philly upstarts The Lawsuits christened the River Stage with a sound that brings to mind what would happen if Elvis Costello collaborated with a 1960s girl group. The groovy newcomers let their hair down, powering through a wonderfully joyful setlist with panache.

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Over on the Jersey Arts Marina Stage, London troubadours Bear’s Den poked fun at their origins. “We’re not used to the weather,” frontman Andrew Davie observed. “Even the shade is hot!” The band resembled a quieter, more introspective Mumford and Sons, its members alternating between banjo, keyboard, floor tom, trumpet, and more.

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J. Roddy Walston & The Business won the title of heaviest band at the festival almost immediately. The Southern rock foursome brought a wild and crazy party to the River Stage. Quite frankly, I’m amazed Roddy still has a voice; his high range sounded like sandpaper and gravel grinding together, which was awesome. It’s only fitting their most recent album is titled Essential Tremors—bassist Logan Davis carried the band with the kind of crunchy rumble that shakes the ground, and before long fans were pumping their fists in a display of downright righteous rock ’n rolling.

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It’s fascinating to watch Nicole Atkins evolve over the course of her 12-year career. Though that unmistakable cannon of a voice remains intact, her style continues to flip-flop from delicate to gritty, psychedelic to sparse. Whatever the style Nicole favors at the time, she always receives an especially warm response from New Jersey crowds. Her backing band was the sparsest it’s ever been, armed with just one guitar player and a drummer, but Nicole somehow made it work. Unfortunately that meant the more elaborate numbers from her first album (like “Maybe Tonight”) were out of the question.

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The Old 97’s still know how to crank out a raucous (but refined) live show after over twenty years in the game. New album highlight ”Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On” competed with Jeremy Messersmith’s “I Wanna Be Your One Night Stand” for funniest lyrics of the weekend, offering up such charming come-ons as “Take you to a cheap hotel out on the interstate” and “You got a gorgeous face, though it’s a little odd.” The alt-country veterans were greeted by a huge crowd, returning the favor to their loyal fans with a set full of crowd-pleasers.

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Beloved XPN Morning Show host Michaela Majoun introduced Diego Garcia as “a core artist at XPN even though he only has two albums.” The Argentinian-American lothario opened with “Roses and Wine”, setting the tone for a relaxed, stripped-down set backed only by acoustic and electric guitar. Garcia’s placement in the middle of Sunday’s lineup was a sorely needed breather in between the day’s more kinetic performances. While his voice isn’t the strongest I’ve ever heard, Garcia compensated with plenty of charm.

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After taking a time out to recharge, I hustled over to the River Stage to witness the huge crowd response Lake Street Dive received. Lead singer Rachael Price carried herself with poise and grace, smiling from ear to ear as her melodies soared across Wiggins Park. Her band is as formidable as they are endearing, with three-part harmonies, an upright bass player, and a guitarist who just so happens to play trumpet. As the Brooklyn quartet wrapped up their stellar set, the unthinkable happened. For the first time all weekend, the festival managers actually rewarded a “One more song!” chant for an opening act. Lake Street Dive returned to the stage for a winning cover of Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl”, and all was well in Wiggins Park.

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In all my time at XPoNential I never expected to see anything even remotely like the performance Man Man gave on Sunday. With as many as three band members pounding away on percussion instruments, Philadelphia’s premier experimental rock troupe sent the crowd into a frenzy. Frontman Honus Honus got up close and personal with fans in the front like a man possessed, grabbing peoples’ heads, making “six six six” gestures, and switching costumes between a sparkly robe and a fur coat. Even staff and press members were bouncing around backstage, straining to get a glimpse at the madness before them. Before long it seemed as if the band devoted themselves to the unasked question “How many instruments can four people play in one set?” Even a temporary keyboard failure couldn’t stop fans from clapping on until the power came back. The band proceeded to play the stage as an instrument and ended their set with a hair-raising blast of dissonance, stomping and screaming. It was startling and euphoric at the same damn time. Man Man received an even larger “One more song!” chant than Lake Street Dive but were unfortunately denied.

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“It’s awful steamy up here…you guys feelin’ steamy too?”… Trigger Hippy front-woman Joan Osborne cooed. The former one-hit wonder is relishing her role as a golden-voiced rock ‘n roll goddess and leader of luminaries like the blues-rock maestro Jackie Greene and Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman. This group has remarkable chemistry; you’d think they were playing together for decades, but the current lineup only formed in 2011. Osborne was unafraid to get cozy with her bandmates, to the delight of the audience. She slowly, steadily pranced toward Greene as he rocked a sweet, subtle organ solo before taking a well-deserved puff on an e-cig. Not one to be upstaged, session guitarist Tom Bukovac ripped a blistering solo that quickly attracted Osborne’s attention. I can only imagine how great Trigger Hippy would be in a headlining slot.

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As fans flocked to the Susquehanna Bank Center, underage rockers The Districts filled the stage with smoldering, folky garage rock jams. Lead singer and guitarist Rob Grote sang his heart out, finishing phrases with ever the slightest rasp.

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Indie darlings Band of Horses walked out to the notoriously vulgar Ying Yang Twinz single “Wait (The Whisper Song)”, but the anachronisms stopped there. As it turns out, their histrionic anthems are tailor-made for arenas. Frontman and founder Ben Bridwell managed to command the stage while strapped to various guitars throughout the performance. Stripped of the cavernous reverb that plagues their studio albums, his band hit hard and tugged at the heartstrings, nowhere more than on signature singles “No One’s Gonna Love You” and “The Funeral”. Even if Band of Horses headlined alone, the audience would have walked away satisfied…

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…but holy cow, I was not prepared for Beck to tear the house down. The genre-defying eclectic chose wisely to highlight the loudest pieces of his expansive discography, exaggerating every gesture to fit the 25,000 capacity venue. Opening salvo “Devils Haircut” shook the foundations of the SBC, while “Loser” incited an appropriately huge singalong. As you’ll see in my photographs, Mr. Hansen simply refused to stay still, and when he wasn’t running all over the stage his fantastic visuals and light show put the audience in a trance. It was a fantastic way to close a festival hosted by a radio station that’s “all about the music.”

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Kudos to WXPN and everyone who worked at both venues for a job well done and a weekend that won’t soon be forgotten.

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