Gentlemen of the Road featuring Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Dan Mangan, Phosphorescent Norfolk County Fairgrounds, Simcoe ON, August 23

Gentlemen of the Road featuring Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Dan Mangan, Phosphorescent Norfolk County Fairgrounds, Simcoe ON, August 23
Photo: Adam Wills

It's a wonder what a week's hard work can accomplish. Take Simcoe, ON's Norfolk County Fairgrounds for instance. Over the past six days the site's horse track has been transformed from a nearly barren field into an impressive world-class festival site with an enormous concert stage, state-of-the-art video screens and coordinated thematic decorations. Walking in the gates to the festival was like walking into a small village.

This drastic transformation was done for the first-ever Canadian stop on the Gentlemen of the Road concert series. Curated by British folk-pop stars Mumford & Sons, the group selected the sleepy Southern Ontario town after visiting and discovering it to be the birthplace of the Band's Rick Danko. It is one of four North American stops happening in selected, rural locations that the group approved for their special festival shows.

Friday was the first of two days for the Simcoe stop. Local performers including Felicia McMinn, Duane Rutter and Blind Mule entertained at street stages in the downtown core during the early afternoon. Most of Simcoe's core and its fairgrounds area were closed to try to both accommodate the expected 60,000 visitors and to also help bring a warm, celebratory vibe to the entire weekend.

The main concert venue had four performances scheduled for Friday evening. After a workmanlike set by acclaimed singer-songwriter Willy Mason, Matthew Houck's Phosphorescent made the most of their allotted time. Touring in support of this year's critically acclaimed Muchacho, the band played a sprawling set that highlighted Houck's classic-rock-influenced songwriting sensibilities and the strong musicianship of his current band. There was a wonderful sense of interplay between the band's keyboard and electric piano players, which went a long way towards colouring songs like "Ride On/Right On" in just the right way. The cheers for the band increased with each song — there's no question that they made some new fans with their 45 minutes.

Vancouver's Dan Mangan was the lone Canadian artist of the evening. In typical Canuck fashion, Mangan made an almost-apologetic mention that this was only his fourth performance this year, although he was delighted to be there. The feeling was mutual, as the two-time Juno Award winner and his cracking band, which included Jesse Zubot on violin, had the crowd up and on their feet dancing and singing along with their highly energetic set. During the song "Robots" Mangan had the entire crowd singing, "Robots need love too" in unison before deciding to go out into the audience for some crowd-surfing with tambourine in hand. He barely missed a beat.

The crowd at the front of the stage became increasingly younger in anticipation of the night's headliner, California's Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. The 12-piece band, who recently released their third album, had the crowd's full attention right from the set's opener "Man on Fire." Singer Alex Ebert, the de facto leader of the band, has a strange shamanistic/dime store minstrel thing happening onstage that often finds him down at the crowd barrier interacting with those up front.

But on Friday night, it seemed Ebert was struggling through his band's set. While he is the main singer and songwriter, Ebert's vocals were the most difficult to decipher throughout. His between-song banter was reduced to a mumble at times, while his voice was not as strong as the others onstage.

Musically the band were sharp and on-point, taking their everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to indie folk into extended territory, but the best vocal performances were by backing vocalist Jade Castrinos and percussionist Christopher "Crash" Richard, whose funky falsetto delivery of "Tell It to the Mountain" was the show stopper of the night.

The audience spontaneously curated the last four songs when Ebert announced there was 30 minutes left to their set, asking what the crowd wanted to hear. These included "Chicken in Love," which has lyrics written by an elementary school class, and their signature song "Home," which became a full crowd sing-along. Ending with "Om Nashi Me," the Zeros left the stage on a high, having communed with the audience, the moon and stars in a manner this town had never experienced before.