Ambition. That was the one word that circled through my head during the entirety of the Gentlemen of the Road stopover in my birthplace of Troy, Ohio over Labor Day weekend. Earlier this summer, in a letter to the editor of the Troy Daily News, I posited the notion that the people of Troy should embrace, not oppose, Mumford & Sons and the throng of faithful who would no doubt inhabit Troy, because what they had planned was sincere.
In Saturday night’s closing set, Marcus Mumford exuded a glow that was beyond sincere, it was ambition at its peak. At that point in the weekend, he was well aware that the “village” he and his handlers had constructed along the banks of the Great Miami River found a perfect double in the small-town charm of Troy. Our public square had become a festival atmosphere replete with pop-up barbershops and street performers. Our train trestles and bridges, levees and turn-of-the-century architecture, became the most idyllic of backdrops to complement Mumford’s millennial take on Americana, despite all of the hokum of mustaches and antiquated instruments clogging up the scenery. It’s likely the band and their pilgrims knew more about Troy’s storied history than its citizens.
Logistically, the Gentleman of the Road tour was flawless. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime (and I’ve been to my fair share of large-scale festivals). Patrons were treated to “passports,” which acted as map, schedule and souvenir, with bands, vendors, and downtown businesses offering up stamps to fill its pages. The layout of the grounds took the indie ideal of an artisanal utopia (or the parking lot of a Dead show) too an extreme, as lobster rolls, wood-fired pizzas, and ales brewed specifically for the stopover, satiated the crowd. The Upright Citizens Brigade held camp at the local Redman’s lodge, a magician took over the community conference room, and bluegrass marathons burned well into the night. More than once over the weekend, bands could be seen traveling the site, plying their musical wears in impromptu, anything-goes sets. That fever even spilled over into the bars of our square, all packed to the hilt with out-of-towners soaking up the local color.
As for the actual music? I had zero interest invested in who was playing save a Friday night set from Phosphorescent, which I missed. My interest came more in defining exactly why Mumford and Sons had become this huge. How had they inspired their own subculture—pining the dream of the 1890s with indie vanilla and stadium folk—to a point where fans follow them from city to city? And with that, why did I not know one soul who actually cared for this band?
I quickly decided to put those questions to bed and enjoy the experience no matter how excruciating Rubblebucket might sound. Alas, besides that duo’s electro-squabble, the music was wholly agreeable. How could it not be in the open air at the edge of summer, a slight buzz and a river running through it? Some moments were even enlightening, crushing my curmudgeon self and showing a softer side for what are simply feel-good anthems. Instead of jam bands, these were stomping string bands adopting indie quirks with banjoes and fiddles, swapping angst and the obtuse with heart-on-sleeve anthems that celebrate youth and young love. Justin Townes Earle did it with smooth, crooned weepers; The Vaccines opted for spot-on diction and punk riffs, while Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros crossed the Flaming Lips with A Prairie Home Companion.
Old Crow Medicine Show (pictured above) seemed to be the forefathers to this folk revival, for they had the widest collection of fans it seemed—and because Mr. Mumford himself thanked them for leading the way. Mixing bluegrass, outlaw country tropes, hee-hawing and hoedowning, their set was the weekend’s best at lathering up the crowd with communal good vibes. There was nothing showy or pompous, no singular star taking the spotlight, nothing preachy besides the religious fervor that playing music together gave them. During “Wagon Wheel,” it felt like every foot in Troy was in rhythm. But nothing, really nothing, touched the two-hour plus set from Mumford and his Sons.
Perhaps all of this sincerity and ambition that seemingly fueled the entire festival is a result of the drama that is truly at the heart of Mumford & Sons’ music. There’s conviction there no matter how artfully it plays to the crowd. Put Marcus Mumford in the same league as Bono or Chris Martin when it comes to making the one-on-one connection, even with the guy peeking in through the fences on the bridge. At the other end of the spectrum, his stage persona was as sappy as they come. But it works and works well, especially given the lack of depth in the Mumfords’ discography. It made even the most cliché-driven ballad its own little wonderland. That kind of emotive power over a crowd is infectious and by set’s end I learned to love what the band does, if only for a few select songs. That sudden transformation was emblematic of the weekend. It was a bigger-than-needed festival wrapped in the warm blanket of nostalgia and run by chaps who know how to throw a party better than we know ourselves.