Edward Sharpe and Ben Vaughn highlight this year’s blockbuster Camden festival.
The comeback was born, as so many great comebacks are, at a VFW hall in Radnor.
Ben Vaughn—South Jerseyite by birth, Philadelphian by rite, current Californian by trade—had come back east to play a birthday party for a friend’s wife. “It was the first time my band and I had played together in more than 10 years,” he says on the phone from his Santa Monica home. “And it was so much fun and sounded so good after so much time, I let people know I was open to doing shows again.”
The band—and Vaughn himself—will be familiar to longtime Philadelphians who recall Vaughn’s career as a hitmaker and local music legend back in the ’80s and early ’90s. Back then he was best known for writing songs like “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” and hosting weekly South Street gigs. Nowadays he’s on the radio, where he hosts the Saturday night show The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn on ’XPN.
So who better to bring Vaughn back to a local stage than the station itself?
This weekend Vaughn plays WXPN’s annual XPoNential Music Festival in Camden—just a few miles from where he grew up. Coming up in the Philly media market, a young, music-obsessed Vaughn devoured whatever came over the airwaves on WDAS, WIBG, WFIL … even, when the winds were right on Saturday nights, he could pick up the Grand Ole Opry or WOR in New York. Most of all, though, he listened to Jerry “the Geator” Blavat on WCAM, who influenced what Vaughn does on the radio now.
“He created something that only he could provide, and I saw that as something I needed to do too,” Vaughn says of the Geator, whom he just profiled in a two-hour ’XPN tribute honoring Blavat’s 70th birthday. “The secret is to stay true even when people aren’t buying what you’re selling.”
Vaughn is coming off of his most prolific period of selling, but the buyers aren’t the consumers you’d expect. After moving out west, he spent 11 years writing music for TV shows, including instantly recognizable melodies from That ’70s Show and Third Rock From the Sun. “Writing every day on assignment was great for me,” he says. “I’d run out of reasons to write in rock ’n’ roll. I knew I was prolific, but this proved I was capable of being a craftsman. I would have to research. If someone wanted me to do an Argentinean tango, I’d have to learn about it, and I’d have to figure out what scales they were using. Oh, and have it in by noon.”
That diverse exposure has ended up informing both his radio show, where he’s likely to follow up a score from a Fellini film with a Little Richard song, and his live sets, where audiences have learned to not be surprised by either a string of three-minute ditties or extended improvs. And until he walks onstage, Vaughn isn’t really sure which it’s going to be either.
Regardless of which musical incarnation ends up performing, Vaughn’s set is sure to be a quirky, fascinating closer to Saturday’s Marina Stage at the 2010 XPoNential Music Festival, where this year’s lineup balances intellectual heavyweights like Vaughn and Yo La Tengo; local phenoms such as Harper Blynn and Blood Feathers; marquee rockers like Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Rosanne Cash and Dr. Dog; and ’XPN superstars like Cowboy Junkies, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Alejandro Escovedo, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It’s a lineup varied and talented enough to make XPoNential the golden ticket of Northeast summer festivals.
But of all of the up-and-comers and trusted mainstays performing, perhaps the most of-the-moment buzz surrounds Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose so-sappy-it’s-sweet hippie anthem “Home” has made them required listening at every hipster wedding this summer: “Hot and heavy, pumpkin pie/ Chocolate candy, Jesus Christ/ Ain’t nothing please me more than you … Home is whenever I’m with you.”
And according to Edward Sharpe guitarist Christian Letts, it’s not just the hipsters.
“A friend of mine works at a stuffy corporate place—one of those companies with no personality,” he says on the phone from Texas, where he and the band (none of whom is named Edward Sharpe, by the way) are in the midst of a summer headlining tour. “She walked into her CEO’s office, and he was dancing around the room, listening to ‘Home.’ After we played Letterman , we got a letter from this 80-year-old woman, saying that hearing the song made her feel like a child again.”
In the last year, the Zeros have quickly built a cult following, with audiences drawn alternately to the band’s jangly pop scores; to the blissed-out hippie shake of bandleader Alex Ebert; to their penchant for constant improvisation and evolution of their songs; and, frankly, to the hottest accordion player you’ve ever seen.
“It’s never the same night after night,” says Letts. “We never really know how a particular song is going to go until we play it. It keeps it fresh.”
That dynamism, says Letts, is what’s allowed the band to grow, causing them to play better as they greet bigger crowds.
“There are a couple of shows where we’ll walk offstage and realize that we went somewhere in the show that we’ve never been before,” he says. “A lot of times when we’re playing I feel like we become one unit—like we’re all satellites revolving around the music we’re playing. I feel almost like I’m levitating.”
With a plum Sunday afternoon slot at the XPoNential Fest, this appearance should far outnumber previous local gigs at the First Unitarian Church and ’XPN’s Free at Noon at World Cafe Live.
“People know about the music now,” says Letts. “It’s been cool to go back to cities and see how word has spread.”
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