The XPoNential Festival, WXPN's younger, hipper cousin to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, returns to Camden for a weekend of top-notch tunes from up-and-comers as well as vets, such as Mavis Staples and the supertrio of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs, whose new album, case/lang/veirs, was released last month. They'll play Sunday at the BB&T Pavilion during XPoNential.
Although case/lang/veirs sounds like a comfortable reunion of old friends, full of casual beauty and joyful harmonies, it is the product of much uncertainty and conflict. K.d. lang is surprised that it ever got finished at all.
"All three of us are individually successful and have been captains of our own ships for many years, so to have to offer up complete democracy and collaborate in equanimity with shared veto power was very, very difficult," lang says. "There was some pouting and some long negotiations and some ego-shedding and some fights. There was definitely some restructuring of our DNA in terms of how we approach music."
Although Case and lang had separately contributed to Veirs' 2013 album, Warp and Weft, the three had not worked directly together before lang "on a whim" proposed that they make an album. Lang and Veirs started writing together for the project three years ago, and Case, who had been on the road with her own band and with the New Pornographers, joined the process a year and a half ago.
Lang laughs often as she recounts the challenges of their experiences. "What I discovered about them is that they're both geniuses, and writing collaboratively with two geniuses and one very mediocre songwriter is very difficult," she says, referring to herself. "We're very different in how we approach subject matter. I'm very pedantic and very straight-ahead. Neko is like a novelist: The way she can sew together images is just unbelievable. And Laura has an incredible documentarian viewpoint and capacity. So mixing those three things I think is our biggest asset, but it took a lot of restructuring and negotiations."
The three artists learned to trust one another to argue for what was best for each song, and the album comes across as an egoless blend of simpatico, and distinct voices. And now the tour, says lang, is the fun, all-too-brief part.
"It's fantastic, and it's so much easier than the writing process," she says. "Being on the road is a piece of cake. But I think what's the most amazing thing is that none of us knew each other. Neko and Laura knew each other a little bit, but none of us were friends, and I would say, surprisingly, we're not friends now. Through the writing and the vulnerability and the intense emotions of the process, we have accelerated right to family."
The camaraderie on stage is lang's second-favorite thing about the project.
"Number one, without a doubt, is that it actually got accomplished. There were so many moments when we thought it wasn't going to happen, just logistically or emotionally," she says. "Second is being on stage and the banter, and looking across and seeing Laura sing 'July Flame' or looking across and hearing Neko sing 'Margaret vs. Paulene' and sharing their art on stage with them and being in that proximity with people that I love. It's crazy."
No doubt Veirs and Case would say the same thing about sharing the stage as lang sings "Constant Craving." And so, too, may the audience that gets to experience all three Sunday evening.
Five must-see acts at the XPoNential Festival
Kurt Vile and the Violators. Vile, with his songs full of dazzling guitar work and wry insights, is a linchpin in Philadelphia's music scene, and his hometown shows are always treats. (9 p.m. Friday, BB&T Pavilion.)
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. With a New Orleans lineage that stretches to the early 1960s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is likely to turn in one of the liveliest and most exuberant sets of the weekend. (4:55 p.m. Saturday, River Stage.)
Alabama Shakes. Still touring behind last year's excellent Sound & Color, the Shakes and their powerhouse leader Brittany Howard blend Southern soul, gospel, and rock-and-roll. They know their history, but aren't bound by it. (9:45 p.m. Saturday, BB&T Pavilion.)
Mavis Staples. Sure, she was just in town opening for her former suitor Bob Dylan, but you should never pass up a chance to see a living legend. She'll take you there - again. (3:55 p.m. Sunday, River Stage.)
Femi Kuti & the Positive Force. Femi Kuti extends the Afrobeat tradition of his father, Fela, and his sets are consciousness-raising dance parties. (5:35 p.m. Sunday, River Stage.)
XPoNential Festival Friday to Sunday, Wiggins Park, 2 Riverside Dr., Camden; BB&T Pavilion, 1 Harbour Blvd. $70 (single pass) to $160 (three-day pass).