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XPoNential Festival – Wiggins Park – Camden (A Concert Review)

Updated: Oct 9

XPoNential Festival – Wiggins Park – Camden, NJ – September 22-24, 2023

They say that the 10th anniversary is the tin anniversary, and the 50th anniversary is the gold anniversary. Unfortunately, for the 30th anniversary of the annual XPoNential Music Festival, it seems that it was the rain anniversary.

Mother Nature did not cooperate with the weekend of diverse musical acts jamming out at Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ. Tropical storm Ophelia was battering the East Coast that weekend, and while no major damage was inflicted on the Philadelphia tri-state area, the area was slammed with rain. This caused regular reshuffling of schedules for the Fest on Saturday and Sunday, and the cancellation of some of the acts – including Saturday night headliners Tegan and Sara.

This was particularly a shame because this was the first time in years (if not ever) that there were not at least the last few bands on a couple of the nights playing down the street at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, which is an amphitheater and at least partially enclosed and would have provided shelter from the storms.

However, the bands and the die-hard crowds for the most part were hearty sorts – sadly far heartier than this writer – and they often played on throughout the storms. I have to acknowledge up front that while I was looking forward to an entire weekend of good music, I ended up missing the entirety of Saturday’s sets and only was able to see one of the Sunday acts.

I actually sat in my car in the parking lot for about an hour Sunday afternoon in the hope that the rain would clear up enough to catch the Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers and Low Cut Connie sets, but the rain just never went away. Which is a shame, I have heard that Hornsby did a fascinating complete reinvention of his 1986 number one single “The Way It Is.”

Friday, on the other hand, was pretty exceptional. I walked into the park at the very tail end of the performance by Nik Greeley and the Operators. I heard the last couple of songs from their set from across the park, where I went to the Marina Stage to await the start of the next act. They sounded good, I’m sorry I didn’t catch the whole thing.

Next up was Philly-based Don McCloskey. (McCloskey was born in nearby Bristol.) He played to the hometown, rocking a Phillies cap (the old-school one with the fat P!) to share that he was a homeboy. In the lazily milling crowd before he came up onstage, a guy next to me promised he was pretty terrific and put on a great show. The guy wasn’t wrong.

He certainly had a big, rather tight eight-piece band, featuring himself on lead vocals and guitar, another guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, two percussionists and two female background singers. They were celebrating their latest album The Chaos and the Beauty, and his music was a mix of Americana, folk, rock and soul. He started out with a romp through the track “I IV V,” which opened with the evocative lyrics “There's gunshots outside my apartment / There's protests inside my head / Bullet holes in these worn-out clothes / Thank God you're in my bed.”

The drama was dialed down a bit with the more relaxed “Dre” and the somber confessional “Unbecoming.” Other standout tunes included “Kill the Lights,” “Son of it All” and “Welcome to the Fitness.”

We next headed over to the River Stage, where Margo Price was about to come on. Price came onstage looking smart rocking a lacy white and gold jumpsuit and scarf. (I only mention her outfit because in the middle of her set she changed into a different one, a frilly red-and-silver cocktail dress.) Like McCloskey – and pretty much everyone else who plays on WXPN – Price offered a gumbo of spicy tunes and musical moods, crossing genres and styles with panache.

Price brought the heat from the jump with her most recent album Strays’ atmospheric opening track “Been to the Mountain.” (She did announce that a Strays II was coming soon.) Then there was the frisky and poppy “Letting Me Down,” the bluesy “Change of Heart” (one of two songs Price played a scorching drum solo) and the sweetly devastated breakup song “That’s How Rumors Get Started.”

The guitar-based psychedelia of “Twinkle Twinkle” was another song in which Price’s playful connection with her crack band was noticeable. Then she rocked out to “Paper Cowboy” (the other song where Price shared drumming duties) and finally closed out on the alcohol-based medley of “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” matched with “I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Whiskey River.”

Next up on the Marina Stage was Say She She – made up of singers Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik, and Sabrina Mileo and a large backing band. They refer to their sound as “discodelic,” a musical tribute to ‘70s girl groups like The Pointer Sisters, High Inergy, The Three Degrees, LaBelle, Sister Sledge and Chic. (The band name is a fun nod to that last group, “C’est chi-chi!: It’s Chic!”)

They do rock the soul and dance vibes, adding their own subtle swing vibe to the mix. Their mostly matching outfits add to the disco vibes, shiny silver minidresses and boots which look tres ‘70s, and at the same time oddly timeless. That description not only refers to their fashion sense, but their music and their whole vibe, a fun, dance-based palette of throbbing beats and sweet harmonies.

They did a terrific take on their recent single “C’est Si Bon” – a fun and frisky swinging dance track, which is NOT a cover of the Eartha Kitt jazz standard of the same name. The “delic” version of the “discodelic” descriptor shows up in “Astral Plane,” a sweet song riding on wah-wah guitars and cosmic vibes. Then there were the gorgeous Love Unlimited vibes of “Prism.”

The show also had a bit of extra, unexpected spectacle in the middle of Say She She’s set, when a random fireworks display suddenly appeared over the river, seeming to be coming from across the water in Philadelphia somewhere. I don’t believe it was specifically done for the music festival, although I’m not sure what it actually was for. (Was there a holiday that day which I forgot?) Still, it added a fun bit of pizazz to the show, although since the fireworks were behind Say She She’s audience at the Marina Stage, lots of people turned away from the performance to watch the fire in the sky. Then again, it added to the enjoyment to hear the stomping music backgrounding the fireworks.

After they ended, back at the River Stage, Old Crow Medicine Show did a fun mix of originals and classic covers. These tributes included takes on The Band’s “The Weight” (for which they brought Margo Price back onstage to harmonize with them), a fun romp through Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” a combustible version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” and an inspirational take on Hank Williams “I Saw the Light.” They also did a sweet version of “Margaritaville” in honor of Jimmy Buffett, who had just died a few weeks earlier. The performance of “The Weight” earlier was also a tribute to The Band’s recently deceased guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, and “Proud Mary” was a nod to Tina Turner, who famously covered the song.

Old Crow has always been an intriguing mix of influences, an Americana string band that loves bluegrass, country, folk, and even a bit of rock. Or, as Wikipedia describes them: “With an old-time string sound fueled by punk rock energy, it has influenced acts like Mumford & Sons and contributed to a revival of banjo-picking string bands playing Americana music – leading to variations on it.”

With decades of songs in their own catalogue, not to mention the aforementioned covers, the group did a deep dive into its songbook. They did a couple of songs from their current album Jubilee (the gospel tinged “One Drop” and the zydeco “Wolfman of the Ozarks). Older favorites include the frontier music of “Wagon Wheel,” the alt-country throwdown “Alabama High Test,” and the crazily entitled jug-band prison song “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.”

Sunday’s gigs (and undoubtedly Saturday’s, too) were all at the River Stage, because the Marina Stage was undoubtedly a soggy, muddy mess from all of the storms. This worked in some ways – no running around the park from stage to stage. Of course, it also had the disadvantage that it removed the constant flow of performances, because the stages couldn’t be reset for the new acts while someone else was playing. Still, this was necessary and a small price to pay. Well, it would have been a small price if not for the rain.

The sun actually poked through in the early afternoon and the rain stopped long enough for Josh Ritter to get in his set. Of course, due to the weather uncertainty, his show was completely revamped, going from a full band set into a one-man acoustic gig. According to one of the festival workers near the stage, Ritter also threw away his old setlist and decided to make up a new setlist on the fly while performing. This gave the performance a sense of spontaneity that you don’t often see, so that was a really cool bonus.

Probably not coincidentally, Ritter started out his performance with a galloping strut through “Feels Like Lightning,” which seemed a bit fitting for the weather. Other standouts were an atmospheric run through “Henrietta, Indiana” and a fun cover of The Sweetback Sisters’ “Deputy Blues No. 2.” He also impressed with the sweet, devotional love song “Kathleen,” with its hopeful couplet, “I’ll be the one to drive you home, Kathleen.” He then closed his set out with the gorgeous “Someday” and the tongue-twisting “Getting Ready to Get Down.”

After Ritter finished, while the roadies were setting up the stage for Allison Russell to start, the rain started again. At first it was just a little sprinkle, a bit annoying but definitely bearable. But soon enough it picked up speed and intensity, until everyone and everything was getting soaked. Sadly, this was pretty much the end of the festival for me, although as noted above I did shelter in place for a while in hopes that the rain would clear up again.

It never did, but while the weather shortened my weekend, it could not ruin the great vibe of music and fun that ruled the XPoNential Festival. And perhaps if I weren’t a bit of a diva (or if I were a little younger) I’d have braved the rains – like many other hardcore fans did – rather than going all Wicked Witch of the West (picturing myself shrieking “I’m melting! I’m melting!”) I would have gotten to experience more great music.

Still, even as a truncated experience, the 30th XPoNential Music Festival was a whole lot of great music and fun. I’m looking forward to year 31, hopefully with clearer skies.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved. Posted: September 27, 2023.

Photos by Jay S. Jacobs © 2023. All rights reserved.

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