All words: Jesse young // All photos: Kevin Carroll
“We came for a party,” Marcus Mumford offered early in the set on Wednesday, “Seems you did as well!”
It’s the kind of coy understatement that would normally feel like pandering – but coming from someone as unblinkingly earnest as Mumford, it was just charming. And the full house at the Patriot Center was in no mood to disagree. As with virtually everything the band did or said throughout the evening, they met it with a giddy, almost-unhinged roar of approval.
Folk rock in an arena is an admittedly awkward proposition. It’s hard to see how a cavernous space meant for basketball games wouldn’t diminish music made with banjos and steel string guitars.
Mr. Mumford and co. addressed this problem by simply ignoring it altogether. Rather than downsize their stage production to an intimate, more human scale, they’ve fully embraced arena rock’s pomp and grandeur. Arcing spotlights sweep the stage. Every song ends in a howling crescendo. Banjo leads are delivered with all the gusto and pomp of an Eddie Van Halen solo. This is folk music made with the modern American attention span in mind.
Aiding in the effort was some of the finest live video production I’ve yet seen at a show like this. Each screen above the stage featured a different close-up of the band, all framed in arty sepia-toned Dutch angles. It had all the polish of a high-end concert film, its self-conscious solemnity all but declaring that this is ART, goddammit, being made by sweaty British men.
After all, Mumford & Sons make kinda girly music. It’s deeply earnest stuff delivered in hushed, breathy tones. There is no room here for irony or detachment. Mumford’s quavering, vulnerable vocals feel like they were constructed in a lab with the one goal of communicating unadorned sincerity. I frankly find it a little tiring on record – oh boy, more soul-bearing anguish?! In concert, however, it’s less grating – the crowd was too ecstatic to let any moment become overly-ponderous.
Mumford & Sons are nominally a four-piece: guitar, banjo, bass, and keys, with the aforementioned Marcus working a standing kick-drum to lend things a bit of urgency. On their current tour, they’ve fleshed things out with a trio of horn players and a passel of supporting violinists, cellists, and guitarists. It allows the band to fully embrace the charging New Orleans second-line feel of their best recorded material. It’s also a winning act of modesty: this is a band that’s outsourced all its ego-boosting solos to other musicians.
That said, the band was at their best and most elemental when reduced solely to four players – the emotional energy couldn’t be deflected away onto anyone else. On barn-burning foot-stompers (mixed metaphors!) like “Roll Away Your Stone,” it was just four guys, careening and crashing into one another – and beautifully so.
Keyboardist Ben Lovett and banjoist Winston Marshall were buried too low in the mix for my taste – however, even in the full-band numbers, Mumford’s percussive acoustic guitar was still the dominant instrumental presence. He drives the band with such relentless insistence that it’s almost exhausting to watch. Alone on guitar and kick-drum, he’d likely still put on a riveting show. He has enough energy and charisma to carry a performance on his shoulders alone. And, like, girls fucking love him.
There’s an obvious sameness to these songs. They start quiet, get really loud, and end with firm lyrical resolve – “Marcus Mumford has no regrets,” is how my girlfriend smartly put it. This is admittedly not a band I know well at all, but as far as I could tell, every song could be titled “Yearning Wordless Crescendo” with complete accuracy. On tunes like “Lover of the Light” and “Not with Haste,” the band was almost Muse-like in their embrace of thudding bombast.
Easily the best moment of the night came after the first set break. The band left the stage only to reappear at a small b-stage parked at the back of the floor section. There, after several well- received exhortations to “shut the fuck up,” the band arrayed around a single microphone to sing “Reminder” and “Sister” – the latter delivered entirely a cappella to a virtually silent room.
It was a consciously minimalist gesture, a nod to the pre-rock foundations of the music these guys play. It’s somewhat eerie at a show like this to be able to hear a singer’s voice before it makes it way through the PA system. It was a quiet, hushed moment in a show otherwise awash in similarly-pitched shouted anthems. The final full-band encore – an obligatory cover of The Band’s “The Weight” – felt almost perfunctory in coming afterwards.