I don’t like Mumford and Sons’ music. Yet there I stood, watching the group play in a field in Walla Walla last weekend. I felt like the band deserved this slice of my time for bringing its Gentlemen of the Road Stopover festival to town. Because there’s real value to bringing live music to spots everyone else considers the middle of nowhere.
Held in a large grass field behind DeSales Catholic High School, the two-day concert drew 22,000 spectators to see acts like Foo Fighters, the Flaming Lips, and (of course) Mumford and Sons. But Stopover’s reach extended beyond its main stage. The fest essentially took over downtown Walla Walla (walking distance from DeSales), closing the streets and turning it into a festive local market with smaller stages for tiny (mostly inland) Northwest acts. It really felt like Gentlemen of the Road owned Walla Walla for the weekend.
These Stopover Festivals have become summertime signature for Mumford and Sons since their inception in 2012. The band eschews the beaten path to bring music to places similar in obscurity to Walla Walla: Waverly, Iowa, Troy, Ohio, Salida, Colorado, etc. It’s an undeniably admirable attempt to deliver an experience to often overlooked audiences.
Having gown up in Montana, I know what it’s like to live in flyover (or, more accurately, drive past) city for touring musicians. (And I lived in the “big city” of Billings.) It’s frustrating to rarely be able to see any noteworthy national acts without traveling 10-plus hours to Denver or another metropolitan hub. And for musical junkies like myself, it’s hard being overlooked by touring bands; it chips away ever so slightly at your own self-worth.
On the flip side, anytime acts would schedule a local date, it felt special. When there’s only one show that really gets you excited every few months, it becomes a treasured moment. In many ways, the abundance of options in a city like Seattle can spoil us. Pretty much every act under the sun is going to play here at some point during a record cycle, sometimes even multiple times in a single year. But in places outside of the typical touring routes, you cling to the acts that take the time to stop in (I’ll always be a Minus the Bear fan because of the groups frequent Billings stops).
Bringing concerts to towns like Walla Walla also connects the music with unique audiences. The shows become special touchstones for the community as a whole. Even from a cursory glance, it was obvious Stopover’s crowd wasn’t a typical summer festival audience of flower crown-wearing women and college bros in tank tops. It was a cross-section of people of the Inland Northwest: from families to teens to a surprisingly substantial elderly turnout. It was clear some festivalgoers were just Walla Walla residents who might not have been there for any band in particular, but wanted to be part of the big communal gathering.
Many highlights underscored the particularly lovely oddity of Stopover happening in Walla Walla. As Dave Grohl sat perched upon his rock throne during the Foo Fighters set (still recovering from breaking his leg during a concert), he remarked that Foo Fighters never played Walla Walla in the band's 20-plus year history. Of course it was the Foos first show here. Why would the band have come without being asked by a group like Mumford and Sons? But the decades of wait seemed well worth it, as the band ripped through the hits for over two hours. They even indulged themselves with a few atypical few moments: extended jamming and a momentary transformation into a cover band midway through the set (playing Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown” in succession). While it did seem the slightest tad self-serving in a look, we came to Walla Walla, we’re gonna have fun and play the set we want way, if only because prevented the group from getting to some staples like “Times Like These,” the fact remains that the band actually came to Walla Walla and delivered exactly the type of rock show that will be etched into the memories of the locals for years to come. For most, it’s likely to be their first and last Foo Fighters show. And Mumford and Sons made that happen.
There’s also an element of musical discovery that putting on a festival like Stopover provides. It’s fair to say that many of the attendees probably came in having only ever heard Mumford and Sons and Foo Fighters. Midlevel bands just don’t receive much musical exposure in small cities. And while most of the Stopover Festival lineup consisted of white dudes playing straightforward rock music, it was thrilling to see an act like Tune-Yards take the stage to warp minds with its experimental rhythmic indie pop. Was a lot of the audience confused by it? Certainly. But the sparse spots of dancing that broke out in the throng pointed to it being a moment of musical revelation for a select few. Forget the rockers rarely playing gigs here. This type of live music never makes it to spots like Walla Walla. For some, Stopover provided an exposure to new sonic worlds.
So I stuck around a watched an hour of Mumford and Sons set. Did I enjoy it? Not particularly. But the guys had earned it.