For 25 years, the people at WXPN have managed to pull off something of a miracle stunt — to put on a music festival that’s both family-friendly, fun and genuinely cool.
XPoNential seems in an almost mythical breed of its own. It’s a 21st century music festival that manages to bypass any light-strobed, stark-raving undergrads and heat-stroked, aspiring influencers, catering almost exclusively to 30-, 40-, 50-somethings and the kids at their heels – and boasting consistently unique, dynamic and interesting lineups in the process.
Moreover, it’s a festival where the headlining acts on the sprawling corporate proscenia (in this case, the adjacent BB&T Pavillion) can wind up feeling like pleasant incidentals, if not outright outliers, relative to the daytime stages at the nearby Wiggins Park. (At least, so insists this arguably begrudged photojournalist, who was denied a media pass to the night’s bill-toppers Blondie and Elvis Costello + The Imposters.)
But ultimately, it’s true: the heart of XPo pumps with the blood of homegrown talent and the Billboard-eschewing folk, independent and even alt-country acts that power the XPN airwaves.
Burlington native Caroline Rose’s first two albums might have favored a humbler, earthier, mature tone. But as she nears turning 30, her release of last year’s Loner proves it’s never too late to grow down, ushering in a sharp turn to indie retro-synth dance pop. And if her infectious, candy-colored, New Wave-flavored set weren’t enough to sell the aesthetic shift, she surely sported the red hot throwback Adidas tracksuit and matching headband to run it all the way home.
Low Cut Connie rocked the genre clock farther back still, from the 80s to the early 60s. The local darlings enjoy a live show reputation that far precedes them, which you get the sense front man Adam Weiner is on an personal nightly mission to not only justify, but thoroughly out-do. While their piano-driven boogie might openly favor genre nostalgia to genuine novelty, what they sacrifice in aesthetic innovation they more than make up with cocky, bomber-jacket bravado and a steel-toed stomping commitment to putting on an the kind of show to send Jerry Lee Lewis into a whole lotta shakin’ fits.
A festival highlight emerged in J.S. Ondara, whose unassuming solo acoustic set forsook theatricality in favor of raw, naked melodies and plaintive, haunting lyrics. Hailing from Kenya by way of Minneapolis, chasing both the shadow and myth of longtime idol and clear influence Bob Dylan, Ondara offered tracks from his sole album, Tales From America. The 26 year old’s debut offers a wistful yet wide-eyed reflection on arrival to a land as full of mystery and wonder as it is absurdity and sorrow. In keeping with Dylan tradition, Ondara remained almost comically sparse on showmanship, his banter seldom extending beyond “That was a song. Here’s another song.” Though it can be said, he did at least play facing the crowd.
Sibling-helmed roots-folk collective The Wood Brothers helped bring the afternoon to a close. Powered by twangy guitars and a rumbling upright bass, and injected with a serious heft from a heavily amplified rhythm section, their rustic stomp was the perfect soundtrack to reel in the golden sun to the horizon.