This Friday night, The Freedom Mortgage Pavilion will host one of the biggest and best touring rock bands in the world when Philadelphia’s own The War On Drugs finish off the first night of the 2022 XPoNential Music Festival. But, of course, they weren’t always packing massive venues all over the world. In 2008, The War On Drugs were, like any young upstart band, grinding out anonymous shows in support of their brand new debut record Wagonwheel Blues, and in doing so, they gave the world its first taste of their massive and indelible sound. The intervening 14 years have seen the band grow and change in countless ways but one thing, it seems, remains the same. You see, it was in 2008 that The War On Drugs first played the XPoNential Music Festival, a time that while they might have been unknown to many, but they were already firmly on the WXPN radar. Herein lies the magic of something like the XPoNential Music Festival, a place where the music reigns supreme and you never quite know what you might discover.
“We are in the artist development business,” says WXPN Program Director Bruce Warren proudly. You might not be familiar with names like Catbite, Highnoon, or Bartees Strange, but if Warren and the rest of the WXPN crew get their way, that won’t remain the case for long. It isn’t just The War On Drugs. If you take a look at the archive of past XPoNential Music Festival performers you will find dozens of artists you recognize appearing years before they became household names. From The Lumineers to Lucy Dacus, the track record speaks for itself. It’s the kind of thing, too, that continues to bring performers back year after year. Take a look, for example, at the trifecta of talent that is Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, and Jenny Lewis. Not only are these artists three of the most gifted songwriters of the last half century, but they’ve all played the festival in the past, some multiple times. “It’s the mix of knowing you are going to see some acts, like Taj Mahal and Lucinda Williams, who have been doing this for 30 or 40 years and have really laid the groundwork for the newer artists who are playing,” says festival Producer Paul Severin.
Part of the charm of XPoNential Music Festival is its consistency, even as it has been threatened over the last couple years. For obvious reasons, last year marked a bit of a reset. Though things went off largely without a hitch, it still felt a little different for all involved. “When you are doing a festival of this magnitude, there is a muscle memory to it, so when you stop for a year everyone kind of forgets stuff,” says Severin, citing the year COVID forced the festival to be entirely virtual. “So this year, I feel like we are back at it in more normal circumstances.” Part of that shift is the return of two full nights at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion in addition to the three days at Wiggins Park. Though that doesn’t mean the virtual aspect of the festival will go away by any means; like last year, all of the Wiggins Park sets will be video webcasting at XPN.org via NPR Music Live Sessions. (The headlining sets at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, however, will not.)
With all this in mind, it’s difficult to not get excited about the weekend of live music that awaits us on the Camden Waterfront. Whether it’s to discover something new or fall back in love with an old favorite, WXPN’s incredible fanbase of music lovers are sure to turn out in droves to enjoy what is shaping up to be a beautiful weekend.