None of us were alive for Woodstock. Only a few of us have been lucky enough to trek to Tennessee’s Bonnaroo or California’s Coachella music festivals. This past weekend, the Toronto nuts camped, danced and loved at Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road tour stopover in Simcoe; making for two nights and three days that were easily the most memorable of this summer.
Beginning Friday night, more than 35,000 music lovers flooded the quaint town of Simcoe, Ontario – more specifically, the Norfolk County fairgrounds – to catch the famous Mumford & Sons-headlined tour, which crammed 11 other excellent gentlemen-fronted bands into a two-day line-up. According to the Mumford organizers themselves, these uniquely crafted stopovers are meticulously put together to provide a truly one-of-a-kind festival experience; one that not only boasts some of the biggest acts in alt- and folk-rock music, but also engages the tiny county and local vendors in the wholehearted music experience.
I’ll let Kaylee divulge the details of the entire Simcoe experience this week, because for now, I have a few things to say about the music.
Upon setting up camp Friday evening and putting down a few much-needed splashes of wine, I left behind my fellow campers in a full-blown sprint through the campgrounds to make sure I made it around the bend and into the fairgrounds to see Phosphorescent (alt-country rocker Matthew Houck’s music moniker). This meant two could-be catastrophic details: I hadn’t really had a bite to eat, and was heading into the middle of the masses where there was no cell phone reception. The fear of keeling over from hunger and never finding my friends didn’t stop me, though; Phosphorescent’s 2013 album Muchacho is easily my most overplayed album of this year and I needed to see him. Houck’s infectious stomp-rock and constant vocal whooping were the perfect way to start a free-spirited weekend at sundown – and songs like “Quotidian Beasts,” “Ride On/Right On” and the gorgeous “Song for Zula” sounded breathtaking under the fading country sky.
After quickly peeling back to the campsite to find the rest of our group still there (fewf), we all returned to the festival to hear the tail end of Canadian Juno winner Dan Mangan (mostly great, a little out of tune on “Rows of Houses”) and the entirety of one of my favourite live acts – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Playing everything from the swaying “All Washed Out” and “Fire and Water” (it was a real treat to watch music-appreciative Kaylee hear female lead Jade Castrinos’ haunting howl live for the first time) all the way through to their most recognized “Home (Wherever I’m With You)” and some of the extraordinary new self-titled (“Let’s Get High” and “Better Days”) – this instrument-packed group of hippies were my favourite part of the star-studded weekend.
After a few necessary but short-lived hours of sleep and a pretty walk around the decked-out downtown of Simcoe, Saturday was another sun-stained dose of free-spirited concert-going. Venturing out on my own again to catch NYC’s The Walkmen – undoubtedly one of my very favourite bands ever – the fifth time seeing them live was just as perfect as the first. As one of the less folky groups in the line-up, Hamilton Leithauser’s longstanding alt-rock gang wisely played the least grungy of their discography, like the stunning “Juveniles,” upbeat “Heaven” and jangly “We Can’t Be Beat,” which all fit the fun-loving bill effortlessly. Even early into the second evening, however, it was clear the crowd was filing in with the sole intention of getting close for the Mumford & Sons finale.
Fortunately, I was reunited with the rest of my group to watch the lively East Coast collective Hey Rosetta!, before partaking in the ultimate “Wagon Wheel” sing-along with contemporary country greats Old Crow Medicine Show. Both were fabulous, instrument-savvy openers for the grand headliners who finally took the stage after sundown on Saturday night to a deafening roar from thousands of loyal travellers. While the handsome Mumford men strolled on to open with “Lover of the Light,” closed eyes couldn’t differentiate between their superb live presence and a studio performance. Modest frontman Marcus Mumford’s flawless accented growl pierced through the whistles and wails of a crowd that knew every single lyric and cue to pounce into the air. Before flowing into an explosive “I Will Wait” and chilling “Little Lion Man,” Mumford kindly thanked the audience for participating in an event that’s clearly near and dear to the Mumford hearts.
“We have it pretty good up here,” Marcus Mumford told the crowd. “We get to hang out with some of our favourite bands in this beautiful town and then we get to play for all you beautiful people.”
Closing with unplugged jams on stage – including heart-stopping moments like a harmony-filled huddle singing Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and reunion with the day’s earlier acts – Mumford & Sons were every bit of a spectacle as the festival’s promotion made them out to be. And, while we all left wanting to send “a big Thank You note to the town of Simcoe,” it became quite clear as we wound down our last evening that we owe the headlining Londoners for assembling one of the most magical music experiences we’ll ever have.