The XPoNential Music Festival presented by Subaru might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “summer music festival.” Competing with bigger events like Firefly in Delaware and Governors Ball in New York, the much smaller festival in Camden, New Jersey’s beautiful Wiggins Park might go overlooked. But for those who have gone to any of the 22 consecutive summer music festival events put on local radio station WXPN, they will know that XPN Fest is a real treat for all who attend.
Starting off as WXPN Singer-Songwriter weekend way back in 1994, the event expanded to its current three-day format in 2004 and moved across the Delaware River to Ulysses Wiggins Waterfront Park. Through a partnership with Live Nation and Susquehanna Bank Center, the festival expanded in 2012 to include two nights of concerts at SBC, located adjacent to Wiggins Park. In its current state, XPN Fest is a fantastic way to spend a weekend enjoying some great live music.
The River Stage, which served as the main Wiggins Park venue, was located right on the banks of the Delaware, as the name suggests. The Philadelphia skyline was visible behind the stage, creating an awesome backdrop for the artists as they played. This stage was where the bigger names of the festival played, including Lord Huron, First Aid Kit and Indigo Girls.
The final day of the festival, July 26, had some of the strongest River Stage performances. Louisiana’s Buckwheat Zydeco had the most fun of anyone on stage as he brought the crowd to their feet with his accordion and zydeco music. It was a great atmosphere that had people dancing and clapping — just having a great time. While Buck was a tough act to follow, Lone Bellow was up to the task. The trio’s incredible harmonies and passionate vocals were on full display. Lead vocalist and guitarist Zach Williams kept spurring on the crowd until the entire place was in a near frenzy. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Courtney Barnett and her two band mates took the stage. One of the hottest commodities in music these days, Barnett delivered an incredible set that everyone was rocking out to.
The Marina Stage was home to the lesser known acts, many of which have gotten exposure from being played on WXPN 88.5. Coming into the festival, I didn’t know a single band on the Marina Stage’s bill. But I trusted WXPN to select some great bands and they did not disappoint. Standouts on the second day of the festival included the soulful Son Little, the throwback rockers Fly Golden Eagle and Latin sensation Gina Chavez. Chavez turned the intimate Marina Stage into a real fiesta with her upbeat Latin music and top-notch band. Her cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” even led to some spontaneous salsa dancing right in front of the stage. It was an experience unlike any other.
Marina Stage action on July 26 did not disappoint either. Local band Cheerleader played some great indie pop numbers, closing with the title track of their debut LP “The Sunshine of Your Youth.” But it was Bombino who stole the show. Hailing all the way from Niger, Bombino is a masterful guitar player who’s 2013, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach-produced album “Nomad” garnered widespread praise. Bombino and his four band mates delivered a truly awesome performance that had the audience dancing while at the same time gawking at Bombino’s guitar playing. His fingers danced across the strings as Bombino himself did a little jig around the stage. He and his band had looks of unbridled joy on their faces and many in the audience were feeling the same way.
The SBC held the festival’s biggest names for two great nights of shows July 25 and 26. Featuring acts like My Morning Jacket, The Wailers and George Ezra, it was a great way to cap off a full day at Wiggins Park. For my money, it was St. Vincent who stole the show July 25. Combine her robotic choreography, unique wardrobe and incredible music together and you get a performance spectacle unlike any you have ever seen.
Besides all the awesome live music, it’s the great atmosphere that makes XPN Fest so special. People lined up well before the gates opened so that they could get in early to set up their chairs and blankets close to either stage or in some of the prime shaded real estate. As the first act kicked off the day at noon, there was a rainbow sea of lawn chairs and blankets stretching across the entire park. By mid-afternoon, some people had dozed off and others were walking out to check out some of the vendor and sponsor tents. The age demographic skewed a bit older and plenty of parents brought their young kids out to see the music. Of course, the WXPN membership was out in force, many discussing who they were excited see after hearing the artists being played on the radio. The picture-perfect weather sure didn’t hurt the weekend’s festivities either.
I cannot recommend going to the XPN Music Festival highly enough. It takes place right in Philly’s backyard. The people and atmosphere are great and the live acts were even better. After a fun-filled weekend of music, WXPN proved that at the end of the day, it is really all about the music.