Meet XPoNential Music Festival Saturday 9/23 Lineup

Pictured Above: Celisse.  Photo Credit: by Austin Nelson Photography

This article is the third installment in a four-part series dedicated to WXPN's 30th anniversary of the XPoNential Music Festival, authored by Lori Goldstein. Join us tomorrow as we offer an exclusive preview of the upcoming Sunday performers

The Saturday, Sept. 23 out-of-towners include The Hold Steady, Celisse, Sammy Rae & The Friends, Tegan and Sara, Bailen, Wednesday, Wilder Woods, and Bobby Rush. Lori Goldstein spoke with Celisse and Sammy Rae of Sammy Rae & The Friends, as well as two rising Philly locals, Julia Pratt and Moustapha Noumbissi.

By: Lori Goldstein

Celisse electrified last summer’s Newport Jazz Festival and this summer’s Joni Jam at the Gorge Amphitheatre, when she performed her interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.” Thinking back to the time she first played the song in Joni’s living room, “I knew it was an audacious thing to show up at her house and say ‘let me do your song to you, but in the way that I hear it.’ I think Joni understood it and valued it because it wasn’t under the guise of ‘I can do it better.’ It was more out of ‘I have such respect for who you are and what you do, I could never be you, so I’m not going to try.  But I’m going to show you who I am through this music, what I have to say.”

At the end of the Joni Jam, Joni told Celisse, “You’re a female Jimi Hendrix.” Jimi had been a good friend of Joni’s. “I don’t think I’ll ever need another compliment in my life,” says Celisse.

After a successful career on Broadway and television, with roles in Wicked and a revival of Godspell, Celisse has combined her vocal powerhouse with guitar pyrotechnics to quickly establish herself on the music scene. Lately it’s been non-stop touring: an appearance with Lizzo on Saturday Night Live, performing with Lucius and Brandi Carlile in honor of Joni receiving the Gershwin Prize at the Library of Congress, with Jon Batiste, Melissa Etheridge, Trey Anastasio, the Dave Matthews Band among others.

With a tattoo of Sister Rosetta Tharpe on her left forearm, Celisse considers Sister Rosetta “the bedrock of rock and roll. It would be impossible to hear her playing and not draw a line between her and Chuck Berry, between her and Little Richard.” Celisse first encountered Sister Rosetta in a YouTube clip of her playing “Up Above My Head” in front of a gospel choir. “She was singing in a way that I remember people singing in church, but then you see her with an electric guitar. That was so wild.” Not to mention the fact that she looked like Celisse’s Grandma Bertha. Sister Rosetta’s “shoulders are definitely the shoulders that I and many people stand on. I feel really fortunate to carry on her legacy in this kind of way.”

It’s been a challenge for Celisse to carve out time for songwriting, but she did manage to get away from it all in Park City, Utah, in December 2022. “Going into the middle of the woods, where it was hard to be reached, literally and figuratively, was really helpful. I very much enjoy solitude in order to regenerate away from others and work.” Celisse plans to dedicate more alone time toward the completion of her eagerly anticipated debut album.

Pictured Above: Sammy Rae & The Friends.  Photo Credit: Mia Aguirre.

Back in 2018, when Sammy Rae & The Friends–a 7-piece band including the versatile voice of Sammy Rae–started out, they toured the tri-state area, performing in Philly often. “I’m from Brooklyn, not Philly, and I know sometimes we butt heads a little bit, but it’s all love,” says Sammy Rae. “Philly has a deep sense of pride for their sports teams, there’s a really thick sports appreciation. So sports fans show up in droves and yell as loud as they can, and it makes for a really high-energy show. It’s a bit of a sporting event as well, I wear knee pads because I jump up and down and hit the ground.”

How did you find each other? I ask.  Was it your brainchild?  Sammy Rae describes her move from Connecticut to New York City at the age 19.  She’d go to as many open mics and jam sessions as she could. She listened to as much live music as she could to get a “scope of what’s happening in the city.”  She met guitarist Will Leet through a singer-songwriter circle, drummer C-bass Chiriboga when they were making kids’ music together, bassist James Quinlan through the straight-ahead jazz scene. She met their two saxophonists through James, and keyboardist Debbie Tjong through the dueling piano late-night cover bar music scene.  No one’s from New York: they hail from Miami, Texas, Ecuador, Singapore, Alabama, and California.

You seem to be one big happy family, I comment. “We had so many discussions in the early stages of this band, if we’re going to do this, let’s be legendary, let’s do it forever, and let’s establish a legacy for ourselves.  The only way you can get that sort of longevity is if you’re good to each other, treating each other the way you want to be treated. You have to operate as a family if you want to do this thing forever.”

Sammy Rae & The Friends will embark on a U.S./European tour, and through the year will release singles from their first full-length album during the second half of the tour.  “It’s a wonderful picture of who we are now, and how we’ve grown, and certainly different from their first EP, “The Good Life.”

Pictured Above:Julia Pratt.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

For 22-year-young Julia Pratt, 2022-2023 has been a very good season. Last September, she was invited to do a walk-on cover of Mt. Joy’s “Dirty Love,” during their national tour at The Mann Center. This August, Julia released “A Little Love,” a duet with Mt. Joy’s Matt Quinn, which they performed at the Mann later that month. She also got a last-minute call to open for The Revivalists and The Head and the Heart. “I got the call an hour before I had to be there.  My car actually got towed the morning of, so I was having the worst day, then it immediately flipped and became the best day.”

In December 2022, Julia was the featured performer from Philly in WXPN’s open mic night. “John Vettese came to that show and asked if I would do a Key Studio Session.  It was the most pivotal moment in our relationship.  He and Bruce Warren are very supportive and committed to creating opportunities for artists like me, who are just coming up.” They asked her to perform at the festival once they had seen her opening on bigger stages for Hozier and Adam Melchor.

Having released her 2021 EP Fallout, Julia is “holding off a little bit for my debut album.  I have multiple EPs worth of songs that I’ll be releasing over the next year, but my first album concept is very in-depth and extensive, so I want to give myself the best possible shot of working with my dream collaborators and getting it out to as many people as possible before I release it to the world.” Julia’s “favorite thing to do is to write songs on my couch. It definitely comes naturally to me.  I’ve been doing it my whole life, so it’s just a facet of my identity at this point.” 

Pictured Above: Moustapha Noumbissi.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

It was the obligation of taking his little sister to a One Direction concert that changed the direction of Moustapha Noumbissi’s life. “I was dreading going to the concert, and then I was there. I saw those guys onstage having the time of their lives, so much passion, so much love for what they were doing…[I realized] this whole time it’s been music, I know I want to play music.” He was 22–had been majoring in pre-physical therapy, then business management in college, had even considered culinary school–when he decided to teach himself the guitar in earnest and write songs.

Music had always been a part of Moustapha’s life when he was growing up in Upper Darby. He sang and toured internationally with the Bryn Mawr Boys’ Choir. At church he was known for playing hand drums. Born in Belgium to Cameroonian parents, “I always had a djembe or some other kind of West African drum…so everybody knew me for that.” Now, when he’s not busy giving voice or instrument lessons, composing or performing, Moustapha teaches a preschool First Notes music class, where the kids call him Mr. Moose. “I’m very big, (he’d been a 6’9” basketball center for Bloomsburg U.) so it fits.”

It was Emily Herbein, a WXPN freelance writer, who told Moustapha that once he recorded his songs, she’d share them with the station, specifically John Vettese, producer of the Key Studio Sessions, and Free at Noon Host Mike Vasilikos. “They’d been playing my songs for about six months at that point, and then I got asked to play Johnny Brenda’s…I think John saw that bill, then invited me to come in and do a studio session.” A Free at Noon concert followed, then the invitation to play at the festival. “After spending eight or years in obscurity…to get support from WXPN is super-special. It’s given me an extra boost, extra confidence to really put my all into it, which is going to happen regardless.  But it feels good when you know there’s a legitimate presence supporting you, helping uplift you.”


The WXPN XPoNential Music Festival is presented by Subaru.

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