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Non-Comm Round-Up, with Brian Wilson, Saun & Starr, Fly Golden Eagle, Leon Bridges, James McMurtry and Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear

Radio convention brings the musical talent to town for three days of showcases at the World Cafe Live.

"Here's probably the best song I ever wrote, in 1966, off the Pet Sounds album," Brian Wilson said on Friday afternoon at the World Cafe Live. "It's called "God Only Knows"."

That was from the oh-my-god-there's-a-pop-music-genius-onstage portion of Non-Comm, the 15th annual (and 9th in Philadelphia) convention of mostly non-commercial public radio stations that brings in deejays and programmers and record label muckety mucks from all over the country for three days of networking and band-seeing at the WCL.

Most deal in the adult-alternative format of which host station WXPN (88.5-FM) is an industry leaders. It makes room for everyone from legacy artists such as Wilson to indie rockers like fellow Californians Best Coast (who kicked off the fest with a winning set of fuzzy garage pop on Wednesday night) to rising retro-soul and R & B acts - a particularly strong presence this year - like Saun & Starr, Leon Bridges and Anderson East.

Bands, bands and more bands: They played upstairs and downstairs,, day and night, from Wednesday to Friday. Of the 30 that took the stage, I caught 14 in the flesh,  heard Southwestern ensemble  Calexico and Australian pop-soul singer Meg Mac on the radio (the whole thing was broadcast live on XPN) and watched two more (guitar pop wunderkind Borns and fiery bluesman Jarekus Singleton) from the comfort of my living room couch via VuHaus, the new public radio streaming video service that my colleague Jon Takiff wrote about in the Inquirer this week.

Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast.

Wilson was one highlight. More engaged and present on stage than he has  often been known to be, and with his keyboard actually plugged in and at times audible, he sat front and center, backed by a band who treat his music with the love, respect and enthusiasm it deserves. The songs from his new album with a corny title, No Pier Pressure, were better than you might expect, and the closing stretch of the set was terrifically satisfying: "God Only Knows," followed by a still remarkable after all these years "Good Vibrations," and joyously goofy versions of "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun," followed by the closing word-to-live-by secular hymn, "Love & Mercy." That's the name of the Wilson biopic starring Paul Dano and John Cusack coming out June 5. Wilson plays the Mann Center June 29.

But enough with the legends; on to the upstarts!

The Non-Comm winners in terms of warmth, positive energy and old school sasss - one vrsion of wht you might call soul - were clearly Saun & Starr, the longtime Sharon Jones back-up singers who played Thursday night on the upstairs stage, with the fabulous Dap-Kings band, including a three-man horn section behind them. Their old school sharply sung debut album, Look Closer, comes out Tuesday.

Some other cool things happened on Thursday night. Glen Hansard, the Irish songwriter who played a busking version of himself in the indie hit musical rom-com 'Once,' strummed and talked up a storm on the downstairs stage. He was moderately involving until he brought out a couple of special guests. Turns out he had been walking the streets of Philadelphia that afternoon where he came upon a pair of teenaged violinsts on the street - Sean Bennett and Franco Yugga, who play with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra when they're not working for tips. Hansard brought them along to the WCL, where he was trying out new material of his own, and teaching the nervous looking teens the songs as they went. "There are no wrong decisions," he reminded them. A priceless moment.

Other standouts included Borns, whose confident ease was apparent on his own power-pop tunes as well as covers of Elton John's "Benny & the Jets" and Lesley Gore's "It's My Party." Fly Golden Eagle, the Nashville band headed by red headed high pitched singer Ben Trimble, a front man whom Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard has been hyping ever since her band came on the scene in 2012, tore it up in a late night set. They're an old-fashioned '70s-style rock band - nothing alt about it - that lived up to the hype.

On Friday night, the first act I caught was James McMurtry, the crusty Texas troubadour who is one of the most precise storytellers in popular music, and whose embittered, beaten-down working class characters earn every bit of their rage. The first line he sang, from "Copper Canteen" on his new album, Complicated Game, was "Honey, don't be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun"; another on edge character was "washing down my blood preessure pill with Red Bull."   Still underrated, after all these years.

James McMurtry.

Back upstairs, much buzzed about son-and-mother duo Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear - who opened for Swedish singer-songwriter The Tallest Man On Earth Saturday at the Tower Theatre - were seated on stage with a crowd gathered round to hear Ruth Ward's decorative vocals support her son's booming Paul Robeson baritone. The Kansas City duo, who are darlings of the NPR set, were making their first trip to Philadelphia. They dedicated their set to B.B. King and Ruth Ward said, "Tomorrow, we'll try your steak sandwich." They'll be back for the Xponnetial Fest in July and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Natalie Prass.

The next act up was Richmond, Va. psych-folk singer Natalie Prass, who performed accompanied by producer Trey Pollard on acoustic guitarist in a set that stripped away the layers of strings and horns on her self-titled album, and cast a pastoral charm. Quietly bewitching, if disappointing though no fault of her own: Before she came on rumors circulated: "She's dating Ryan Adams [the former Whiskeytown singer and Mandy Moore husband who played the Wilmington Grand Opera House this past week]! He's in the building! He's going to play with her!" It didn't happen.

Next up, Leon Bridges.  The Sam Cooke-style retro soul man from Ft. Worth, Texas absolutely slayed me with his big band and suave demeanor when I saw him on Willie Nelson's ranch during SXSW in Texas in March. Maybe that gig was just too magical: I found his sound too loud and cluttered and the room too packed upstairs at Non-Comm - many of the upstairs shows at this year's sold-out confab, which was open to the public for a bargain priced $100 all-access pass, felt a tad overcrowded -  and he didn't meet my sky high expectations. I'm not giving up on him though. Bridges songs seem to deliver a sweet innocence, but they're filled with compelling personal detail, and he's s superb singer. His debut album comes out on Columbia on June 23.

Briefly then, the last three acts of the night. Tallest Man On Earth - real name: Kristian Matsson - played a pleasant set, touring for the first time with a full band rather than as a folkie Dylanesque solo artist.  I'm a fan of the new Dark Bird Is Home album, but the live band did not add much, except on the final song of the night, when Matsson played solo, and his four compadres backed him on sterling harmony vocals.

Israel Nash.

Back upstairs, Anderson East was an eye opener. I assumed the Alabama singer was a roots-rock-country singer, from bills I'd seen his name on. But he is in fact a wicked soul wailer with a huge voice, a skinny white guy with a raspy, weathered sound coming out his body that defied expectation. Definitely worthy of further investigation. (His new album on Elektra is due in July.) And finally, hirsute Missouri-born rocker Israel Nash closed with a blast of Neil Young & Crazy Horse guitar stomp and drone that finished it all off with a shot of these-go-up-to-eleven rock catharsis.


» READ MORE: B.B. King: Five Great Songs

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