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Review: WHYY Connections Festival

Shortly after The Baseball Project’s blazing 12-song set on Saturday, surprise guest Mayer Michael A. Nutter walked onto the River Stage, water ice in hand, to let the crowd know that this debut edition of the WHYY Connections Festival would not be the last. Indeed, the Mayor was not the only one having a great time at the free Penn’s Landing festival. By the end of the day, thousands of people had seen great music and eaten great food (the pork sandwich I had was absolutely delicious), all with amazing weather and at a great venue.

Philly-based Japanese taiko drumming group Kyo Daiko took the stage sometime before 3 PM in front of the Delaware River, kicking off a day highlighted by local musical talent. Immediately following Kyo Daiko was one of my favorite current Philly bands: Toy Soldiers. Fronted by singer-songwriter Ron Gallo, the quintet is a common sight on local stages, and this was certainly one of their best opportunities yet to show a large crowd what they could do. Unsurprisingly, the raucous roots rockers did not disappoint, turning in a high-energy set, highlighted by “Throw Me Down,” under the hot sun.

Next up was Birdie Busch, another local songwriting treasure getting the chance to play in front of a big crowd. Busch pulled songs from all three of her LPs and last year’s EP Everyone Will Take You In. Busch’s set was taken in by Scott McMicken and Eric Slick, and thoroughly enjoyed by at least these two girls, and certainly more. Kuf Knotz followed Busch, continuing the parade of diverse Philly music with the day’s only hip-hop set. Knotz’s band sounded as good as I’ve heard them, and the whole crew kicked the energy level at Penn’s Landing into high gear.

The Baseball Project was up next, the first out-of-town act of the day. The supergroup was without R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, with Sal Maida “pinch-hitting” on bass. They played 12 songs from across their two albums, including their only Phillies-related song “The Death Of Big Ed Delahanty.” Although, as TBP noted, no one in the crowd could have actually been alive to see Big Ed play, everyone seemed appreciative of the nod to the Phillies power-hitting outfielder.

By time Justin Townes Earle was due up on stage, the ever-growing crowd had already been treated to Japanese taiko music, good ol’ fashioned roots rock, americana/folk, hip-hop, and baseball rock. Earle was the final addition to the festival, with the announcement coming after his set at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It was an interesting decision to put him on before Dr. Dog instead of a higher-energy band (such as TBP), but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Although I would have liked to see Earle with a full band, he did a great job with just the strings, and blew me away with an incredible cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “My Starter Won’t Start This Morning” and a great new song.

After JTE, it was finally time for Dr. Dog. The crowd had packed into the Great Plaza for the band’s first show in the city since February’s sold out affair at the Electric Factory. It was my third time seeing them this year (Electric Factory, then at the DMB Caravan), and it’s the best I’ve heard them sound yet. You could tell how much fun they were having being back on a hometown stage, and the packed crowd was happy to welcome them. They’ve been in the studio recently working on the follow-up to 2010’s Shame Shame, but unfortunately they did not debut any new material. They did, however, play a classic set that drew from the best of their 5-album catalog.

After closing out the show with “Shadow People,” “Shame Shame” and “Jackie Wants A Black Eye,” the crowd practically demanded an encore. It was great to see a crowd actually earn an encore; with encores now the norm at concerts, crowds hardly have to beg. Despite already being past the 9 o’clock curfew, WHYY and Dr. Dog quickly obliged, and the band sent the crowd home with their cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races.” It was a great way to end a fantastic festival debut that diversely displayed Philly music at its finest, all for free! Let’s hope Mayor Nutter is right and that WHYY brings this fest back for years to come.

You can check out setlists, videos and photos from the festival here. A full photo album can be seen here. And the great local music didn’t end at Penn’s Landing; after the festival ended, I headed over to Sigma Sound Studios to catch Work Drugs and Sun Airway, yet another free show with local talent. You can find my review, pictures and setlists from that show here.

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