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Even before concerts came back, video sessions were a way artists and their fans remained connected in 2021. Whether it was a Facebook livestream broadcast from a studio or a park, or an in-person recording session at our studio space once it was safe to return, XPN did our part in cultivating those experiences, and here are some of our favorite moments doing so this past year.

Unprecedented Sessions

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Without The Key Studio Sessions actively providing a spotlight on local artists, we spent 2020 in search of a good alternative, and Unprecedented Sessions became our stage. A collaboration between WXPN and Cherry-Veen Zine — whose Paige Walter has since joined our digital content team — the shows put bands on unused stages and emerging recording studios, in parks and backyards, with soundperson-about-town Matt Schenck capturing the audio and the XPN / CVZ team shooting video. Being there in the moment, seeing the bands play in front of us, filled a void that was sorely missing in our lives, and that energy carried into the resulting videos as well. This performance of “Party Song” by Grocer has us leaping out our seat, ready to slam dance, every time the chorus peaks.

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A blustry winter day led us up Chew Avenue in Germantown to trudge through the snow and spend a few hours in Sleepless Sound, the studio run by Decouplr‘s Adam Laub. The band released a sublime indietronica LP in 2020 called Digital Bonfire that received acclaim from a range of folks, most notably John Di Liberto of Echoes, and the day they spent playing five of its songs for our cameras was the first time they performed it for anybody but one another.

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Wilmington, Delaware funk / rock band Hoochi Coochi has a way of grabbing you by the shirt and shaking you back to life — at least that’s what it felt like when the band performed their Unprecedented Session at Aston, Pennsylvania’s Rockdale Music Studio this spring. Their set opener “Big Bad Wolf” brought a tsunami of energy out the gate, and gave us a formidable introduction to frontperson Sug Daniels, who is a pro at working the crowd, even when the crowd is on the other side of a few cameras and an internet connection.

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Philly photographer, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist KooF played a set of his sound-loop driven experimental pieces for us on the lawn of Rigby Mansion on a gorgeous spring afternoon. There was a moment in the expansive “MBrace Diversity” (a title that may or may not be an Octavia Butler reference? Need to ask KooF about this) where a local pollinator buzzed by, wove in and out of his trumpet’s valves, and got right up to the mouthpiece before flying away. If a bumble bee got that close to me I’d probably freak out, but KooF held his note and his composure.

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The psychedelic country troupe Cosmic Guilt closed out the series for us this summer by performing their Gram Parsons / Wilco / Polyphonic Spree inspired tunes in True Hand Society, a decommissioned church repurposed as a tattoo and design studio. The choir loft was our setting, and as the groovy “Sun In Your Eyes” got under way, the sun broke through the window, casting a serene glow across the ten musicians and everyone else in the room.

The Key Studio Sessions

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Getting back in the recording studio was something incredibly special and psychologically healing for us. So much so that we didn’t even ease our way back in; our first Key Studio Session back was with Dante Robinson and the It’s Lit Family Band, a nine-piece band with horns and mandolins and cello, playing tender and explosive indie-folk reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes.

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Speaking of diving back in, Chestnut Grove did that this year with concerts, playing an album release party in Ardmore this may before hitting the road and a few midwest festivals in the summer. They brought that tour-tight energy to XPN Studios for their performance ahead of a 118 North residency, rocking new tunes like the feisty “Newspaper Hats” alongside longtime fan faves.

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Singer-songwriter Saleka makes stirring indie R&B reminiscent of Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys, and a Welcome America performance in the courtyard of Philadelphia City Hall on Independence Day weekend was such a treat, we promptly set the wheels in motion to record Saleka and her band of all-star Philly players (including the awesome Dai Miyazaki on guitar) at XPN studios this fall; this song “The Sky Cries” appeared in the Apple TV series Servant.

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“Experimental percussion” is how Jello Vibes describes what he does. In practice that means a synth vibraphone that sounds organic but easily links to his laptop Ableton station to co-mingle with heady psychedelic hip-hop beats. The result, especially on this performance of “Bandit,” is jazzy and groove-driven, perfect for headphones but a treat to see in the flesh as well.

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Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ciaran Wall brought his project Lady HD back with a vengeance this year, expanding the roster to seven players who locked in to bring the layered nuance of his studio work to life. This performance of “Relax” is a perfect specimen of a swinging beat, soaring vocal melodies, and instrumentation that’s always charging forward in a beautiful blur.

World Cafe and beyond

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The team at World Cafe spent 2021 continuing their “At Home” session approach, allowing artists to record performances on Zoom or wherever they might be self-isolating and connect with hosts Raina Douris and Stephen Kallao over Zoom for interview. The Weather Station‘s May performance was one of the year’s most dynamic — a fitting showcase for Ignorance, Douris’ favorite album of the year — and it takes us inside Canterbury Music Studios in Toronto where Tamara Lindeman and her bandmates show off the record in a four-song set.

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When NON-COMM rolled around in May, Japanese Breakfast was gearing up for the release of Jubilee, the album that catapulted the band’s career into the stratosphere. Though they’re geographically scattered now between Brooklyn, Philly, and Austin, they made the record at Fishtown studio Spice House Sound — which also doubled as their pre-tour practice space — and they reconvened there in May for a four-song livestreamed set full of melody and emotion that was taped for the band’s World Cafe session.

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Modern Rock mainstays Garbage appeared on World Cafe in May in support of their seventh studio LP No Gods, No Masters, arguably the band’s best work since the early 2000s. In addition to a candid conversation between frontperson Shirley Manson and host Raina Douris, the band played a four-song set taped at the stylish Mates Rehearsal Studios in North Hollywood, showcasing the new album and dipping back to the classic Version 2.0 for “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing.”

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Celebrated guitarist and singer-songwriter Christone “Kingfish” Ingram caught up with World Cafe’s Stephen Kallao this September on the heels of releasing 662, the 22-year-old artist’s sophomore album. In a performance recorded live at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale — the Mississippi city whose area code doubles as Kingfish’s album title — he and his band show how they’re stretching their sonic palette on this album beyond the raw blues that put him on the map.

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2021 also found Eric Schuman’s adventurous Indie Rock Hit Parade heading back into XPN Studios for the show’s first in-house live sessions since 2020. The hardest-hitting set came from Squid, an experimental post-punk outfit from London, whose jagged music channels the bleak ennui and hearty groove of Liars and The Fall. Their set included this 15-minute medley of “Boy Racers” and “Paddling,” two cuts from Squid’s Bright Green Field LP, and the songs are tied together by an explosive expanse of dissonant squalor that includes gong hits, synth blasts, and rickety guitars falling ever more unhinged.

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