(CAMDEN, NJ) -- One of the best music festivals of the summer takes place July 16-18 in Wiggins Park along the Camden Waterfront area. Known as the XPoNential Music Festival, it has been held annually in Camden by the Philadelphia radio station WXPN for several years now, ever since moving across the river from its original home. It may seem a bit odd for a Philadelphia radio station to hold a festival in New Jersey, but WXPN is far from just a Philadelphia station. In fact, you can easily hear WXPN or one of its affiliates in parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland making it one of the most powerful stations along the east coast.
It's also one of the best radio stations in the country.
Known for showcasing up-and-coming artists, WXPN uses this festival to bring artists that people should know about to the area. I was asked to write about the "five can't miss acts from the festival." Unfortunately (or fortunately for music fans) when I took a look at the schedule for the three days I realized that picking just five acts was going to be next to impossible. In fact, my short list has 18 artists -- or just under half of the performers -- as ones to catch! With two stages and artist set times that overlap, you're bound to always have someone good to see, but will unfortunately miss someone just as good. In the end, I decided to create a list of 6 can't miss artists featuring two artists for each day.
Friday, July 16
My first can't miss artist for Friday is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals -- in fact, they are my ultimate can't miss for the entire festival. The band is probably best known for songs like "Ah, Mary" and "Mr. Columbus" from the brilliant This Is Somewhere album. That record made my Top 10 list for 2007 and is one of my favorites of the past decade. I caught Grace Potter and her band at the Stanhope House in North Jersey that year and discovered that they are every bit as good live as they are on record. If you're looking for a great traditional rock and roll band -- don't miss them. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are scheduled for 8:00pm on the Camden County River Stage.
My second can't miss artist for Friday is Ben Arnold, a singer-songwriter from Philadelphia who is also a favorite of the Asbury Park music scene. Ben has not only released several fine solo records, but is part of a local "supergroup" of sorts called U.S. Rails (formerly known as 4 Way Street) comprised of other Philadelphia area musicians, although Ben is the only one still in the Philly area. He's known for his "throaty" voice, which provides a tremendously unique bluesy/soul to his songs. Personally, I think he's got an amazing voice. Check him out at 7:40pm on the JerseyArts.com Marina Stage. And, right off the bat I've chosen two artists with overlapping schedules! Oh well, you can catch 20 minutes of Ben and then pop over to the other stage to catch Grace Potter.
Of course, Friday also contains performances by Alejandro Escovedo (an incredible artist from Austin that just might inspire Bruce Springsteen to make a guest appearance on stage), Free Energy (a wild band featuring a ‘70s classic rock feel, sort of like a glam band), and Big Head Todd and the Monsters (a huge band from the ‘90s that put out one of the biggest hits of the decade -- "Bittersweet").
Saturday, July 17
My first can't miss artist for Saturday is Joshua James, a singer-songwriter originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, who is on the JerseyArts.com Marina Stage at 3:00pm. His songs often feature soft-spoken vocals and poetic lyrics, but he's not afraid to rock out as well. I'd pin him somewhere between a folk artist and the roots category if I had to come up with a label. What catches my attention is the way his music doesn't stick to any particular script. I love the way he challenges himself and is both creative and adventurous with his songs.
My second can't miss artist for Saturday is The Felice Brothers who close out the Camden County River Stage at 8:50pm. Their music has been compared to Townes Van Zandt, the Avett Brothers, and even Bob Dylan and the Band. I can just imagine their guitars strumming and sweet roots crooning on stage as the sun fades into darkness. They are the type of band that summer festivals were made for. Just sit back in your chair, let the cool night air sweep over you, and get entranced by their tunes.
Saturday's lineup is full of many interesting choices not the least is a pair of New Jersey acts that will lend you some serious indie-Jersey cred -- Nicole Atkins and Yo Lo Tengo. The former is one of the most exciting artists to come out of the Garden State in quite some time. Hailing from Neptune, Nicole Atkins has one of the best voices in the business and can pen some pretty haunting tunes. She's been on the Artist to Watch list for both WXPN and Rolling Stone magazine, so catch her here and you can say you saw her when. Meanwhile Yo Lo Tengo is a New Jersey indie rock institution. This Hoboken band has been putting out great records since the ‘80s. See why they are among the most loved unknown bands in the state.
Saturday also features notable sets by Harper Blynn (a great pop sound from the band formerly known as Pete and J), Birdie Busch (very cool singer-songwriter from Philly), and Rosanne Cash (Johnny's daughter who is a tremendous songwriter as well).
Sunday, July 18
My first can't miss artist for Sunday is Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros who hit the Camden County River Stage at 5:20pm. Their debut album, Up From Below, came in sixth in WXPN's Year In Review Top Albums countdown for 2009 with the single "Home" taking best song of the year honors. The giant 10-piece band features irresistibly catchy tunes that mix folk, psychedelica, and touches of blue grass together among a wall of sound to form something very unique.
The second can't miss artist for Sunday is Earl Greyhound who is scheduled for the JerseyArts.com Marina Stage at 7:55pm. This powerful Brooklyn-based trio literally explodes on stage. I caught them a few years ago at the Wave Gathering music festival and was very impressed with their Zeppelin-inspired hard rock. After checking out the festival's lineup, I'd have to say Earl Greyhound rocks the hardest; if that's what you're after, don't miss their set.
Other highlights on Sunday include another great Jersey artist -- Robert Randolph and the Family Band (some brilliant lap steel guitar work), These United States (a cool, quirky pop/rock band from Kentucky), and The Cowboy Junkies (the legendary band from the ‘80s best known for their wonderful cover of "Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground).
Regardless of whether you choose to bounce back and forth from stage to stage or choose one area to call your own, you're bound to see a great day of music each of the three days. Tickets are available for individual days ($30 for general public, $20 for WXPN Members) or through a 3-day festival pass ($65 for general public, $45 for WXPN Members). With the lineup WXPN has put together, you can't go wrong either way...
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.