CAMDEN — Bluesy rock and indie folk jams dominated day one of the XPoNential Music Festival, presented by Subaru and Philadelphia’s WXPN radio. Main stage headliners Ryan Adams and Kurt Vile packed BB&T Pavilon in Camden Friday, while nearby Wiggins Park hosted openers like Father John Misty and The Suffers.
The three-day festival is expected to bring in more than 25,000 guests in its 23rd consecutive year.
Here are the best — and absolute worst — acts we saw on the waterfront.
– “No lectures tonight. Let’s just have some fun,” Ryan Adams said as he took the stage at BB&T Pavilion. Could the alt-country star have been throwing some subtle shade at Father John Misty?
Adams, along with his backing band, The Shining, performed in front of giant fake amps, real vintage soda machines and functioning arcade games — remember Asteroids? Their quirky setup laid the foundation for a truly fun evening.
Bathed in an indigo light, Adams sang his 2001 nostalgic ballad “When The Stars Go Blue.” He and his band showcased gorgeous harmonies on another fan favorite, “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Adams tailored his set to feature almost exclusively his most beloved songs.
Between those tracks, though, he performed a new song for the crowd, who revered him even more so when it ended (if that’s even possible). He called it “Frank Starr,” with two Rs, he said.
“No matter where you are, you’re just down the street from Frank Starr,” he sang over a twangy guitar riff.
He had his fair share of strange wisecracks, like “John Mayer is flying in a helicopter made of unicorn bones,” which he failed to provide any context for. But despite his odd one-liners, Adams delivered a genuinely impressive set.
– “This song is about golden tones,” Kurt Vile said as he introduced the song “Goldtone.” His straightforward approach lasted all evening, as the indie folk rocker performed a predictable set accompanied by his backing band, The Violators.
Vile, who briefly performed with indie rock band The War on Drugs, played his hits “Pretty Pimpin” and “Walkin on a Pretty Day” (his two most-listened to songs on Spotify) back-to-back in the middle of his six-song suite. He passed over his expansive back catalog entirely — half of his songs were pulled from his September release, “b’lieve i’m goin down,” while the other half were off his 2013 record “Walkin on a Pretty Daze.”
But the songs he did select stirred the packed crowd at BB&T Pavilion. He broke out his banjo right away with the western anthem “I’m an Outlaw” and ended on the somber “Stand Inside.”
– Only about half of Father John Misty’s curt solo appearance on the River Stage consisted of actual music. The first half was a bizarre and seemingly-unplanned tirade (frontman Josh Tillman launched into the rant after rejecting a guitar from his manager) in which he denounced entertainment in itself and criticized the current state of the U.S. “Evolution makes us half-formed when we come out and culture fills the gap,” he said during the profanity-laced speech.
He said he didn’t feel up to performing, but eventually, he crooned a 10-minute ballad woven together by verses pertaining to current events (earlier in his set, he rejected the “entertaining tyrant” who he said is dominating the political landscape).
And his finale? It wasn’t even an original song — instead, he opted for Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” It was a beautiful rendition — Tillman is admittedly a talented singer and guitarist — but overall, he disappointed. And since he requested that WXPN refrain from live-streaming his performance through VuHaus — the only opening artist to do so — only the folks at Wiggins Park got to see it.
– Ryan Adams wasn’t the only artist of the day to criticize Father John Misty. The Suffers lead vocalist Kam Franklin told fans, “To perform ever is a privilege,” after she took the stage. The Houston soul funk troupe was slated just after Tillman’s outlandish performance.
The Suffers call its expansive sound “Gulf Coast soul,” and the appraisal fits. The band showcased its mix of musical genres on the Marina Stage, from Caribbean to punk to more theatrical tunes. Take “Good Day,” for example — it’s a sunny ska jam that features Franklin’s velvety voice trilling across reggae-inspired riffs.
Later, the band performed “Stay,” a more soulful song with a bluesy rock chug.
This festival stint capped off a year of television show appearances, including “The Daily Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
– Another Texas-based band brought a bluesy set to the Marina Stage. White Denim revved up the crowd with its bass- and tambourine-heavy track “Real Deal Momma.” Other funkier songs, like “Ha Ha Ha Ha (Yeah),” showcased a rollicking groove while encouraging the crowd to “be yourself.” The band’s soulful rock approach earned it accolades from fans, many of whom danced along throughout the entire set.
*This story was originally published on NJ.com.