Mumford & Sons seemed genuinely stunned by the magnitude of their own festival in Portland, Maine yesterday. In the late afternoon, keyboardist Ben Lovett and bassist Ted Dwane sat on a grassy hill overlooking the city’s Casco Bay, smoking cigarettes and marveling at more than 15,000 fans packed into to the city’s sprawling Eastern Promenade. "There’s no way when you start out as a band, you think you’d end up getting here," said Lovett. "This is another level of life experience."
"You can never hope for this," added Dwane. "I suppose you could dream of it, but we didn’t even dare to dream of this. It’s so weird."
Mumford, Dawes, St. Vincent and the Dropkick Murphys were among the acts who played yesterday’s Gentlemen of the Road U.S. stopover, one of four festivals Mumford & Sons are holding in small cities throughout the country this month. It was Portland’s biggest musical event in years, forcing street closures on the East End of the peninsula while local media went into overdrive. It was even reported that the band would be judging a house-decorating contest – they didn’t plan to, but homeowners on Munjoy Hill still decked out their homes in welcome signs, flags and drawings of mustached faces with top hats. One house built a giant mock sailboat displaying the band’s name. It was worth it, as the band crashed several of the homes during the day Saturday, receiving the key to the city from the Mayor of Portland on someone’s porch.
The band spent the entire weekend soaking up New England culture. On Friday, they played a sweaty, free in-store set at the local Bull Moose Music, wandered the Old Port, chowed on lobster at J’s Oyster Bar and boarded a boat to tour the harbor with local fishermen. "They talked us through the history," said Lovett. "I learned how good of life they have in many ways. Pete, who owned the boat, wasn’t too concerned in some of the problems that face people in the bigger cities – not freaking out about rush hour and social life. He just does his thing. It’s always good to be reminded of that."
The socializing never stopped. Dwane paused our interview to wander into the crowd to check out an ethereal set from London rockers Maccabees. In the front pit, he went about 30 seconds before getting swarmed, taking several photos, signing tickets and joking with ecstatic fans. Soon, he retreated to the band's shaded dressing area, pulling his derby hat over his face for a nap.
For Lovett, it was a hard-earned day of celebration. "We played a shitload of gigs," he said. "We don’t feel it was just the album [Sigh No More]. We spent 2007 to 2012 playing gigs non-stop, which has helped us build a career."
One of the day’s highlights was St. Vincent; Annie Clark won over the crowd with blazing garage-rock riffs over dance-y grooves, howling moving cuts like "Cruel," and running her hands across the guitar neck, producing haunting octave-shifting fuzz.
Dawes’ L.A. folk harmonies fit right in. The band had caught an early-morning flight from Lollapalooza in Chicago that day, but frontman Taylor Goldsmith bounced across the stage, playing blistering solos between big hooks on "Fire Away" and "When My Time Comes." The band will be opening for Mumford for the rest of the month. "We’re learning how to play to bigger crowds, and it’s not easy," said Taylor Goldsmith with a grin. "These are the biggest shows we’ve ever played."
And in a pure New England twist, Boston’s Dropkick Murphys were added to the festival bill at the last minute. "We go anywhere we’re invited," said frontman Al Barr. The band blasted through their set of heavy Irish punk, including a fist-pumping singalong of "Sunshine Highway," a Springsteen-y new song and "The Irish Rover." Their biggest moment? When the crowd stomped during the heavy fiddle breakdown of "I’m Shipping Up To Boston," best known from The Departed soundtrack.
The crowd frenzy hit a new level as Mumford took the stage. The band surprisingly opened up with quiet unreleased new track "Lover’s Eyes," which seems to cope with sins realized after young love gone wrong. But the band had no trouble filling up the giant space; behind their old-timey image and acoustic folk instrumentation are some of pop's biggest hooks. This was evident during "Little Lion Man," as the crowd aggressively howled along to the lines "I really fucked it up this time / didn’t I my dear?"
New numbers "I Will Wait" and "Lover of the Light" turned into big sing-alongs, the latter beginning as a quiet stomp but exploding when Marcus Mumford sat behind a drum kit and thrashed away while a horn section blared. "This is one of the best days I think we’ve ever had," Marcus said as the sun was setting.
Despite the joyous setting, Marcus seemed intent on keeping intact the emotion on the band’s records; during "Dust Bowl Dance" his eyes looked focused and angry as he snarled, "You are my accuser, now look in my face / Your oppression reeks of your greed and disgrace." The band harmonized on new track "Ghosts That We Knew," a haunting plea for a strong lover in hard times.
During the giant sing-along of "The Cave," Dwane held his standup bass over his head while Winston stomped and picked away on his banjo furiously. Then, the band invited all of the day's performers onstage for "The Weight," with Dawes’ Griffin Goldsmith nailing Levon Helm’s drum groove while Taylor Goldsmith sang the second verse soulfully with gospel inflections, playing a melodic solo as Marcus Mumford watched in awe.
Afterward, the crowd spilled into Portland’s Old Port and Arts District for at least five after parties at clubs throughout the town; the Dropkick Murphys played the State Theatre, Mumford’s Lovett DJ’d at the Space Gallery while Winston Marshall hosted an open party at the Big Easy. "It can get tiring investing your heart and soul in the places that we visit," Lovett said. "But we do."