(CAMDEN, NJ) -- From the first chords of The Great Unknown to the final notes from Robert Randolph and The Family Band, the 2010 XPoNential Music Festival provided an incredible day of music in Camden. This was my first time seeing a show in this city in many, many years and I couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful the waterfront area is and how perfect it was for a music festival. Between the amazing scenery and XPN’s excellent track record in spotlighting some of the best indie artists around, this is definitely one of the best festivals in the state.
The two biggest highlights for me would have to be Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Dr. Dog. Both artists did absolutely incredible sets! Entering the day, I probably looked forward to seeing Edward Sharpe’s band more than anyone else and they exceeded my expectations. This 10-piece band from Los Angeles was a favorite of the crowd – many of whom sang along with every word thanks the many spins the band has received from XPN since their debut record was released in 2009.
Edward Sharpe's set included “40 Day Dream”, “Janglin’”, “Fire & Water”, “Up From Below”, “Carries On”, and closed with the insanely good “Home”, which was not only voted song of the year by XPN listeners last year but is among the best songs I’ve heard in a long, long time.
Dr. Dog surprised me. Maybe it was because the popular Philly band has been put on a rather tall pedestal, but I was never that much of a fan of their records; seeing them live changed all that. Their live show literally blew me away! It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the band thousands of people had been waiting to see. I found myself reveling in their Beatlesque sounds – even imagining that these were songs that I could easily see McCartney & Lennon write if they were a band just starting out today. Needless to say, Dr. Dog picked up another fan on Sunday and I quickly picked up the band’s latest record.
Dr. Dog's set included “Shadow People”,”Stranger”, “I Only Wear Blue”, “Fate”, “The Breeze”, “Someday”, “Hang On”, “Mirror, Mirror”, “Station”, “Old Days”, “Army Of Ancients”, “The Way The Lazy Do”, “Shame, Shame”, and “The Rabbit, The Bat And The Reindeer”. It was a long set, but not long enough for the audience who brought them back for the first encore of the day.
Other highlights included a wonderful set of blues from The Holmes Brothers; a hauntingly beautiful set by the Cowboy Junkies that left me wondering why I had never seen them live before; grooving to the African-inspired beats of Fool’s Gold; and great sets by Dawes, These United States, and the Great Unknown.
I’ll never forget the reactions in the audience as Earl Greyhound launched their blistering attack on nearby eardrums left unguarded through hours of singer-songwriters and pop bands; It was as if somebody suddenly cranked the amplifiers up to 11! There were actually people holding their hands over their ears as they tried assessing the situation in a scene reminiscent of the audience turning on Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival when he started playing electric. Those who could handle the volume were treated to a stunning set by the New York power trio.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band closed out the night and the festival with their mix of rock, blues, and gospel – a very appropriate blend for a Sunday night in the summer. It’s nice that XPN chose a Jersey artist to close things out. As much as this festival still clings to its Philly roots, there’s should always be a strong Jersey connection as well – although I hope they find someone from across the river to produce a better cheesesteak next year!
Throughout the day I was able to spend a few minutes with several bands. I had fun talking with the guys from Fool’s Gold about the hottest shows they had ever played and how the vocals sung in Hebrew came about. Had a blast talking with These United States about a recent show in Toronto that got cancelled due to a riot in front of the club and thoroughly enjoyed spending some time with Wendell Holmes, a legendary bluesman who believes beating cancer led to his best record to date. While waiting around for the Holmes Brothers to finish their set, I met a guy from the Great Unknown who told me about the band’s van (nicknamed “Tinkerbelle”) breaking down on the highway the night before as the guys tried to get to the festival. All in all, the artists were all very easy to talk to and XPN did a great job of lining up some interviews for us. I’ll have full transcripts of the interviews online later this week.
In the end, I had a great time. Camden was very easy to get to from Central New Jersey and I will definitely return next year. It’s easy to have a negative attitude towards Camden based on the news, but you really can’t beat the waterfront location for a festival. Even though the sun was beating down and temperatures were in the 90s, there were still cool breezes coming from the water that made it far more bearable. If you’ve never been to the waterfront area you should check it out; you’ll most likely change your perception of the city… I know I have.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.