I packed a lot of live music into this past weekend much to my husband’s chagrin since he got dragged along for all of it. I have been a long time member of WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania radio station. I get free passes to their annual music festival, the XPonenential Music Festival aka XPNFest, with my membership level. However, until COVID happened the festival was always the same weekend as the Newport Folk Festival, so I was never able to go. Back when we were all young and naive and thinking COVID would be a thing of the past by fall of 2020, they pushed the festival back from July to September. Of course the festival didn’t happen that year, but they announced that they would be keeping the September date permanently because it would offer better weather anyway. They did have the festival in September last year, but I was still leery of large gatherings even outdoors so I didn’t go. I finally took advantage this year.
The festival is a half day Friday, a really full day on Saturday, and then a shorter Sunday. The only band I was super interested in for Friday was The War on Drugs, who I had already seen back in May, so we skipped out on Friday so that we didn’t have to take off work early and didn’t have to pay for an extra night in a hotel. It also meant that on Friday night I could drag my husband down to Annapolis to see Amos Lee in concert. He was playing as part of the inaugural Annapolis Songwriters Festival, which had a mix of over 70 paid and free concerts throughout the week. The concert was outside on City Dock. Madison Cunningham opened for him. I really want to like her more than I do because I keep seeing lots of people talk about her including critics and artists I am generally in alignment with musically, but I just can’t get into most of her music. She was fine, but even live I couldn’t get super into it. Oh well.
I have said it here before and I will continue to say it that Amos Lee’s Thursday night Instagram concerts during the first year of the pandemic really got me through that time, so I relish any chance I get to see him live. It doesn’t happen very often because he never plays in Baltimore. I saw him play a solo acoustic show last summer at Wolf Trap with a half capacity, socially distanced audience. I had tickets to see him play with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center back in April that was rescheduled from pre-COVID, but it was too close to our trip to Hilton Head for me to want to go and risk our vacation. So I was happy to finally get to see him play with his band. I will admit that it was not my most favorite of his sets. I paid to watch his shows from the Ryman and at Red Rocks on this tour and I liked those set lists more. I still enjoyed it though and will happily jump at the chance to see him again any time.
After getting home late Friday night from the Amos Lee show, we got up bright and early Saturday morning to drive up to Camden for XPNFest. We had a hotel booked at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is in walking distance to the festival. You’re pretty much not near anything else, but since we were essentially only going to the festival that was fine and it worked out well that we could just park over there and walk to everything.
I was kind of annoyed at both XPNFest and the Annapolis Songwriters Festival because of all the rules that differed across the 3 different venues I was going to be at and the fact that they didn’t enforce most of them. I think Freedom Mortgage Pavilion is the only one that actually enforced their annoying rules. I don’t consider it freedom to not be able to take my stuff into places anymore for security reasons, but I guess only gun owners freedoms count these days. The security at the other two venues was pretty lax though. I’m used to Newport where they literally do go through every little bit of your stuff thoroughly. In Annapolis and at Wiggins Park they barely glanced at anything. In Annapolis people had bags much larger than were supposedly allowed, and apparently they changed the no chair rule at the last minute I guess because they sold way fewer tickets than expected. I don’t know how other people found this out, but it would have been nice to know so we could have brought ours. Speaking of chairs, the chair height rule at XPNFest was way lower than at Newport, so I spent a bunch of money to buy us new chairs that fit their height requirements and so many people had tall chairs. We could have taken in whatever we want. Why have the rules if you’re not going to enforce them. I’m just mad because I spent so much time and money trying to make sure I complied with everything at each venue and then it mostly didn’t matter.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at XPNFest as the set up is kind of funky. During the day they have shows in Wiggins Park on the waterfront, but then the big headlining shows at night are next door at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion. That holds 25,000 people, but I gathered that they sold additional tickets to those shows beyond the festival and that the Wiggins Park capacity was smaller than that, I just wasn’t sure by how much. Turns out the answer is A LOT. I have no idea what the capacity or attendance actually were, but I know the Newport Folk Festival caps at 10,000 people per day, which is tiny for a music festival, and XPNFest was definitely just a fraction of that. It was a teeny, tiny little baby festival. It also skewed very old. Most of the people there were my parents age. I only saw a handful of people in their 20s and then there were middle aged people, some with kids. I guess it’s because it’s a festival put on by a radio station and kids these days don’t listen to the radio. I did appreciate feeling like I’m not the only old weirdo that’s still into new music, and doesn’t just want to listen to what I enjoyed in high school. I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to most of the people at that this festival.
There were two stages at XPNFest. The River stage is the main stage overlooking the Delaware River and then the Marina stage that is sort of behind it and off to the side a little overlooking, well the marina. They are very close together and you can totally hear the music from anywhere, but the topography of the park means you can’t actually sit at one stage and turn around and actually see the other. They music basically just flips back and forth between the two stages. While they change the sets on one stage music is playing on the other. It was kind of nice not to have the Newport problem of always feeling like I’m missing out on something because there is music happening in too many places at once.
We set ourselves up at the Marina stage both days because there was better shade. I was amused because at most venues people fill in from front to back, but at the River stage people filled in from back to front because that’s where the trees were to provide shade. The Marina stage had more trees that were larger, so there was better shade overall. My husband just stayed put and I just walked over and stood in the back to watch the sets on the River stage.
On Saturday we left the shows at Wiggins Park a little early so that we could go have dinner with one of my oldest friends. We’ve been friends since I moved to Massachusetts in 7th grade. We stayed in touch even after my family moved again right after my Freshman year in high school. Since Baltimore and Philly are fairly close, we have usually been able to see each other once or twice a year. Then COVID happened and we hadn’t seen each other in 3 years. So I wanted to make sure to see her while we were up there. We met up for dinner and got to catch up for a few hours, which was nice. Then my husband and I headed back to the headlining part of the festival in Freedom Mortgage Pavilion.
I’ve talked a lot about the setup but haven’t actually said much about the music. I won’t bore you with an in depth look at every artist. I will just point out a couple of my highlights. I was happy to finally see Lo Moon, who I had tickets to see at a small club in Baltimore back in May but that I didn’t use. I think their music fits better in a dark club at night, but hey if what I can get is a bright stage in the middle of the day I’ll take it. Bartees Strange was definitely the highlight of Saturday. His new album, Farm to Table, is definitely going to be on all the best of 2022 lists. He also has an incredible stage presence. His set was a lot of fun. Sunday was my highlight day though. I was excited to see Buffalo Nichols, who I had been looking forward to at the Newport Folk Festival before we had to abandon ship. I was happy to get a second chance at seeing him. The set I was most looking forward to all weekend was Kathleen Edwards, who I have never seen live but have wanted to for awhile. She was my favorite set of the weekend, and I immediately wanted to go see her live again. So I’m hoping that will happen at some point. Jenny Lewis was the Sunday night headliner, and she also gave a really great performance. I was extremely happy that she played “She’s Not Me” as her second song in the set because it’s my favorite and she doesn’t always play it.
All in all it was a nice little music festival, and I look forward to going again in future years. It’s not the Newport Folk Festival. Going to this just reminded me how special that is. The sense of history and the collaborations that happen there can’t be beat. This was a festival where artists played music and it was enjoyable, but it was each artist doing their own thing. That was not what Newport is about. I will go back to XPNFest and enjoy the music, but Newport is home and where I get to commune with my folk family.