Kyle Anderson
March 18, 2012 AT 12:20 PM EDT

Just a mile north of the armies of green-clad party people filling up Sixth Street in downtown Austin, a far more positive vibe was being dealt out on the campus of the University of Texas. Though the show, put together by MySpace, existed outside of the purview of South By Southwest proper, it provided some of the purest musical moments of the entire weekend and trafficked in that rare emotion across the stages of Austin: joy.

Sprawled across a hill on a breezy evening under a lovely Texas sky, thousands showed up for a screening of the documentary Big Easy Express, which tracks the seven-date tour that took Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Old Crow Medicine Show from Oakland, California to New Orleans via train. The bulk of Old Crow couldn’t show up on Saturday night (they were represented by member Gill Landry), but both Mumford and the Zeroes were there to celebrate the film and perform new music.

The trio of new songs that cropped up during Mumford & Sons headlining set had all appeared in their live sets before, but they all felt more fully realized than ever, suggesting that the band has fully grown into them. “Ghosts That We Knew” felt especially well-executed: the layered harmonies were on point, and the weepy violin solo gave the bridge some real heft. Bassist Ted Dwayne recently described Mumford & Sons’ upcoming second album as “doom folk,” and the version of “Ghosts That We Knew” played on Saturday night certainly falls under that descriptor.

The band also unleashed “Lover’s Eyes” and “Lover of the Light,” the latter of which found Marcus Mumford pulling a Phil Collins and singing whilst also playing the drum kit. Each of the new tracks was greeted warmly, and the gothic, moody “Lover’s Eyes” definitely has the potential to be a big single for the band.

They already have a handful of those, of course, and Mumford & Sons delivered impassioned versions of each. “Roll Away the Stone” was dedicated to the Austin natives who put up with the overwhelming influx of outsiders during SXSW, while “Little Lion Man” continues to get harder as time goes on. Though they aren’t sonic doppelgangers, Mumford & Sons really do operate in the same space that Dave Matthews Band does (or at least used to do). They’re both obsessed with rhythmic quirks, use folk and country as jumping-off points for greater constructions, abuse acoustic guitars like the strings insulted their mothers, and attract the same sort of laid-back poets. And though Marcus Mumford doesn’t necessarily sound like Dave Matthews, both have a sweetness that can turn ominous on a dime.

Both can indulge in spectacle, too; Mumford welcomed the Stephen F. Austin High School marching band to the stage for a set-closing take on “The Cave.” It was a replication of one of the scenes from the film, as the same group of teens assisted Mumford when their train made a stop in Austin on the tour. The result was glorious noise, overflowing with epic amounts of joy. Between that and the all-hands-on-deck encore jam on Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” Mumford & Sons drove home the same point that Bruce Springsteen did on Wednesday night: When you’re singing with your friends, nothing can go wrong.

That theme cropped up again and again over the course of the evening. The Mumford boys joined Landry on stage for a brief opening set before the screening of the film (with Marcus again on drums), and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes frontman Alex Ebert made two appearances during the Mumford set.

The Zeroes also debuted new music during their loose opening slot, pausing in between tunes to openly discuss what should be next on the list. Ebert noted that the band hadn’t been out in a while because they have been cooped up in a studio recording their new album (he likened his plight to that of Tom Hanks’ character in Joe Versus The Volcano). “We have a bunch of new s—, but we don’t know it very well,” he told the audience. “This is called ‘That’s What’s Up,’ but it’s gonna sound f—ed up.”

Actually, of the new material, “That’s What’s Up” was the best executed and showed the most promise. Ebert and singer Jade Castrinos exchanged lines while a rapid-fire chugga-chugga ran underneath, pausing a few times for some psychedelic pit stops. It was the one song that didn’t sound like it could have been played during The Last Waltz, and that’s a good thing for the group’s development.

For his part, Ebert is a pretty excellent frontman, casually wandering into the crowd and soliciting people nearby for lyric ideas. “Carries On” and “40 Day Dream” both cooed and stomped with equal aplomb, but the highlight was the well-developed indie hit “Home,” which was greeted like an immortal anthem. And to this crowd at that moment, it genuinely was.

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