All Photos By Sarah Turier
The first time I saw Marcus Mumford perform songs from his band Mumford & Sons was at the Factory Theatre in 2008. He was supporting Laura Marling on her first Australian tour (as well as playing as part of her band) and his set was just him with a guitar, kick drum and kick tambourine.
Fast forward seven years and I’m standing in the muddy Domain in Sydney, rain streaming down my glasses and my jacket soaking through, as 23,000 people sing along to “Little Lion Man”. How far they’ve come.
Gentlemen of the Road is a concept that Mumford & Sons have been kicking around for a number of years now. The basic idea is that Mumford & Sons curate a mini-festival in a location that wouldn’t normally see international touring bands (the last one in Australia was held in the NSW town of Dungog), fill that festival with overseas and local acts and generally put on one hell of a show. Planting this year’s Gentlemen of the Road event right in the heart of Sydney does seem at odds with this concept, but I’m pretty glad they made that decision as it turned out to be one of my festival highlights of the year.
Stepping into the Domain decked out in all its Gentlemen of the Road finery reminded me Homebakes of old. For once the incessant rain had not kept the Sydney crowds away and the parkland was teaming with punters eager to see their favourite bands.
I’m not sure if the lineup of Gentlemen of the Road was meant to be a reflection of Mumford & Sons’ move away from their folk influences or whether it was just a coincidence (despite prominent appearances from the likes of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show at other GOTR events Mumford & Sons have never touted the event as a folk festival) but this time around there was a definite rock and indie vibe perpetuated by appearances from The Jungle Giants, Future Islands, Meg Mac, Art of Sleeping and The Vaccines.
Only Jake Bugg bucked the trend fronting the huge crowd armed only with an acoustic guitar and his Dylan-esque songwriting style. I was pretty chuffed to Bugg on the lineup given his comments that Mumford & Sons “look like posh farmers with banjos to me” that the media sensationalised and tried to turn into a feud between the two artists. Jake Bugg’s set was engaging, intense and ultimately satisfying as he had the audience singing along with almost every song.
Mumford & Sons took the stage following a blistering set from Future Islands. The rain had been falling steadily for the afternoon (Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring was soaked to the bone by the end of their set) and The Domain had been reduced to a muddy mess. But that was all forgotten as the first chords of an electric guitar rang out across Sydney and the crowd pressed forward for almost two hours of Mumford & Sons goodness.
The boys did not disappoint with a blistering set covering all three of their albums. With the departure from acoustic instrumentation on Wilder Mind I half assumed that the tracks from Sigh No More and Babel would be reworked live to include the two-guitars-bass-keys-and-a-drum-kit set up, but for the older tracks the banjos and double bass were out in full force.
Classic Mumford & Sons tracks like “Little Lion Man”, “Roll Away Your Stone” and “I Will Wait” had crowd in fine voice but I was doubly impressed with just how much the newer songs were resonating with the fans. Looking around during the songs like “Ditmas” and “The Wolf” I saw Sydney singing with gusto.
The absolute highlight for me was the rendition of “Cold Arms”. This saw Marcus, Ben, Winston and Ted crowd around a single mic bluegrass-style with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The hush that fell over The Domain was just magic with the harmonies from the boys washing over us.
In typical Gentlemen of the Road style Mumford & Sons finished the set by getting every artist back on stage for an all-in singalong. The song they chose this time around was “With a Little Help From My Friends” borrowing heavily from the version made famous by Joe Cocker. It was great to see the stage filled with a group of artists with an obvious respect for each other and who were humbled by the massive crowd who had braved the weather to see them.
Gentlemen of the Road reminded me what I love about these massive festivals where thousands of people come together to experience the music they love. Possibly my favourite Mumford & Sons show to date. Can’t wait for the next tour!
For all of the photos from Gentlemen of the Road check out the gallery on our Facebook page here.