Mumford & Sons' earnestness is so legendary, such an intrinsic part of both the band's mass appeal and its detractors' dismissals that they recently made a video, “Hopeless Wanderer,” in which Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman and Ed Helms play the band with such comic yearning and starry-eyed corny zeal that it basically made them immune to that strain of criticism. It was as if they said, “Yeah, we know. Did you think we didn't?”
But what most true Mumford & Sons fans know is that the band's earnestness, their desire to please above all else, is what makes them knockout live performers. The four multi-instrumentalists — Marcus Mumford, Ted Dwane, Winston Marshall and Ben Lovett are all superb musicians, but it's their passion in performance that makes the difference and can make 35,000 people standing in a hot field feel like it's the only place they want to be. That's not the only reason people will talk about Friday and Saturday's Gentlemen of the Road Stopover at Guthrie's Cottonwood Flats for a long time to come, but it's essential to the conversation.
Friday's performances by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Phosphorescent, Willy Mason and Justin Townes Earle was a strong lineup and the Magnetic Zeros commandeered the evening with their big and bold psychedelia, but Saturday was a whole other animal. Alabama Shakes, the band that immediately preceded Mumford, played with soul and fire, and like so many performers on GOTR, singer Brittany Howard is best heard in a live setting. The band played most of the songs from “Boys & Girls,” including “Hold On,” and Howard sent every note past the Highway 33 bridge.
The other big pre-Mumford winner was Haim. Sisters Este, Danielle and Alana Haim (with drummer Dash Hutton) played several great songs from their upcoming full-length debut “Days Are Gone,” and showed why they've created such buzz by playing “The Wire,” “Falling” and “Don't Save Me” like real, persuasive rock stars. Their melodies, harmonies and guitar style prompts frequent comparisons to Lindsey Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac, but when they played a surprise cover of that band's blues-rock classic “Oh Well,” they showed that their love of the Mac goes all the way back to their beginnings with Peter Green.