Each summer, my family and I spent a week down the shore in Ocean City NJ. And, although it can be a challenge to find a chunk of time that works for everyone and a house big enough for us to cohabit comfortably, the minute I plop myself down on the porch and feel the ocean breeze blowing, it’s all good.
So, I was a little concerned about the concurrent timing of the first day of our shore week and the XPN festival.
As it turned out, though, I caught the kick off at Wiggins Park on Friday night … JC Brooks, Lumineers, Dawes, you get the idea, then I drove to the shore on Saturday, had the world’s finest boardwalk pizza, went to bed, woke early, drove back to Wiggins Park and settled in for an absolutely fantastic final day of the festival.
Due to scheduling, I missed a couple of acts that I had really hoped to catch – JD McPherson and Kaki King, to name two – but I enjoyed every artist I did see and had a total blast conversing with Dana Alexandra, Kaki King, Diego Garcia and Rhett Miller.
Surprise of the weekend? JC Brooks! His performance was smokin’ dynamic, his band was a chugging R&B machine, and the songs were sultry, soulful and danceable with a capital “D”! A Camden native, Brooks was the hometown boy and the brother from another planet, all in the same package. I’ve been telling everyone I know NOT TO MISS him the next time he comes around.
The act that took me back to my music lover roots while keeping me firmly planted in 2012? Had to be JD Souther (what are the chances, by the way, of a 3-day festival with two JDs and a JC? But I digress). Souther still has that unmistakable voice, recognizable on the first warbled note, and is charming performer. He did a beautiful blend of older songs, some familiar enough that the crowd sang along, and some that probably sparked some memories, as well as a smattering of newer songs. And he also reminded the audience of several of his tunes that were made famous by others, including “Faithless Love”, which Souther said has just been recorded for the 30th time! If I hadn’t had to meet someone for an interview right after Souther played, I would have definitely waited behind the stage to do an unabashed “I’ve loved your music since the 70s” fan routine.
My “didn’t I tell you” moment? Definitely Rhett Miller and the Serial Lady Killers. On the drive to the festival, I was talking to my afternoon companion about who we were going to see. When I mentioned Rhett Miller, she wasn’t sure she knew his music. But I promised her she would LOVE him and I was right. She loved him!
And my “take me away” moment – or rather series of moments – came during the set that Diego Garcia and his remarkable band played. The combination of the late afternoon light on the river and the sounds coming from the cello and guitars wove a spell on me and the rest of the audience. When they played the song “Laura”, I practically swooned.
Ahhh, and the conversations. I am a lucky, lucky girl. I not only get to see an incredible group of performances in a fantastic venue, but also have a chance to learn more about some of the artists during the interviews. It’s a tough job, folks, but somebody’s gotta do it.
First was Dana Alexandra. She put on a fantastic performance. She’s playful, foxy and can really belt out a song. When we talked after her set, she told me that she began playing guitar and writing songs at 16. What did she listen to then? “I was a typical teenage girl – listening to ‘N Sync and bands like that. I loved the poppy stuff.” She attended the Berklee School of Music but left after a year. “I knew what I wanted to do, and I just wanted to do it on my own.” These days, Dana likes a lot of different music. “I still love pop,” she says. “It can reach such a broad spectrum of listeners.” But Dana also is a huge fan of vocalists from the 20s and 30s, as well as modern day icons like Bonnie Raitt. Up next on Dana’s horizons is working with the guys in her band to put together a new record, and “perform the heck out of my songs.”
“You have to get out there,” she says, “in order to be able to create. So, I’m going to just live life, have fun, and get inspired.”
Though I didn’t get a chance to see Kaki King do her guitar magic on stage, I was able to talk with her about her craft and about her upcoming record, which is due out in October.
Eight of the songs were recorded in California, she told me, and two of them were written with a string quarter and one that has a bagpipe on it. I asked if she heard that bagpipe in the song when she wrote it. “No,” she said. “It just was a Celtic sounding song, and there was no other way to treat it.”
At age 4, Kaki’s started taking guitar lessons. I commented that parents more often want their child to take up the piano. “I guess my father had just enough boogie in him think of the guitar instead.”
By the time she was 9 years old, Kaki was on a path toward playing music as her life’s work. “Barbra Streisand was my first love,” she told me. “That’s when I figured out that music could be loved that much.” In her teens, she went for “musical punk” – Blur, Stereo Lab, The Smiths, The Cure, Television. “Listening to Tom Verlaine introduced me to other guitar players, like Nick Drake. “It just kept going.”
We talked a bit about the power of music to be a safe outlet for the emotion overload that comes during the teenage years. “It’s simple escapism,” she said. “And it helps define who you are – your culture, your fashion sense – everything.”
I asked Kaki what she listens to now. “When I don’t know how to answer that,” she said, “I always go back to classical music, especially the Russians.” But, she added, all music has the power to spread “wide love”. “That’s really why I’m a music fan.”
After watching Diego Garcia, JD Souther and Rhett Miller, I sat down with Diego and Rhett and gave them the Big 5 Questions…
What’s it like to play in front of the Philadelphia skyline?
Diego: It’s beautiful. I feel like I’m in some exotic European place. But it was four or five songs into the set before someone told me that we were in NJ, not in Philadelphia. I kept saying ‘C’mon, Philadelphia.’
Rhett: It’s so beautiful
What does it mean to an independent artist like yourself to have the support of a radio station like WXPN?
Diego: It means everything, The industry doesn’t have the time to get involved with artists these days. XPN came on early in my career and opened up their world to me.
Rhett: Very few stations play the quality of music that XPN has. They are an arbiter of taste.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Diego: All I remember is that it had the line “girl with blue jeans” in it. I was about 14 or 15. It was kind of risqué. See, right away, I was writing about girls.
Rhett: It was terrible. I was 13 and the song was about Charles Manson. The chorus was something like ‘Charles Willis Manson, look at what you’ve done.’
What was your first instrument?
Diego: My mom’s Spanish guitar. It was in the closet and it was all dusty. I saw it all the time, but I never touched it. It was all dusty. I finally picked it up when I was 12. I took a couple lessons, but I wasn’t really getting it. I asked my mom what I should do and she said ‘just shut up and listen’.
Rhett: Guitar. I started playing when I was 12. I wanted to be David Bowie.
If you were putting together a music festival, who would be on the bill?
Diego: Cream and the Flaming Lips, oh, and Jose Feliciano; And the secret guests would be the Bee Gees. And at the after party, I’d have The Kinks.
Rhett: David Bowie; Queens of the Stone Age; T-Rex; Head and the Heart; David Wax Museum; and the Spring Standards.
p.s. When JD Souther came out on stage, he said “Special thanks to WXPN, the best radio station in the world.”