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.
But most of the crowd was there for Mumford, and the band delivered all the high points from “Sigh No More” and “Babel” and beyond. They instantly pulled in the massive crowd with “Lovers' Eyes” and “Little Lion Man,” and from there, Mumford & Sons went big when it counted (“Lover of the Light,” “Thistle and Weeds”) and small when they knew everyone on the field was paying attention (the a cappella performance of “Sister”). It was an evening when Mumford & Sons proved so masterful of their folk-rock domain that the great T-Bone Burnett, former sideman to Bob Dylan and producer of countless great Americana albums, joined the band of Britons on stage.
Toward the end of the evening, the performances became more loose and playful as members of Bear's Den and the Vaccines, both of whom played earlier in the day, joined the Mumford & Sons for a brassy cover of the Beatles' “Come Together,” and as Mumford promised the crowd “one last song,” every single musician from those two days joined the group for a cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” rendered Joe Cocker/Mad Dogs and Englishmen style with roughly 50 people singing and playing. To the entire Gentlemen of the Road lineup's considerable credit, it sounded tight — most singalongs of this stripe are usually amiable train wrecks. But considering that the festival itself was a model of organization, good will, uncommonly great behavior on the part of the audience and cooperation on all fronts, “With a Little Help From My Friends” worked because all the friends — Mumford & Sons and everyone else — were truly helping to make it a fitting end. It was earnest and legendary.