I’m never quite sure what to make out of Mumford & Sons. Their debut album Sigh No More was a fairly strong effort with some really good songs despite nearly all of them following the same trajectory: slow intro, build up a big head of steam, deliver an anthemic/climactic finish. While not terribly diverse, it’s a fault you can more or less look past because the songs are catchy as hell and fun to sing a long to. Their second and most recent album Babel is a more diverse offering, but the material isn’t nearly as strong. By no means is it terrible, but it is a significant dip from their debut.
I’ll be 100% honest and say there is absolutely no way I would’ve paid $65 for this show. I stumbled upon what was essentially a free ticket and wanted to see how they were live given that they’re one of the biggest things happening in the genre. It dawned on me very quickly in the live setting why they’ve become the most popular band among their peers. I would consider Mumford & Sons the “second wave” of new Americana or indie-folk (or whatever you want to call it.) They’ve basically taken what The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show do and have polished it up and smoothed the rough edges. There are no songs about meth or cocaine or being anti-war like Old Crow Medicine Show has and there’s not the intense screaming/howling that The Avett Brothers get into at times. In addition to smoothing that rougher Americana over, they’ve infused a pop sensibility a la Coldplay and it’s proved to be quite the attractive combination to the masses.
Even more unsurprising is that it’s a potent combination for folks in the South. It was Mumford & Son’s first ever show in the state of Alabama and yet they packed out all 10,500 seats at Oak Mountain Amphitheater on a muggy Monday night. Basically they’ve taken OUR music (which is kind of THEIR music that we borrowed and made our own) and infused it with some extremely catchy pop hooks and sensibility. Drop some English accents over the top of it and it’s the siren song for suburbanites with desk jobs.
I kind of felt the two hour set dragged on a bit in places as they pretty much emptied their catalog to fill that much time. That being said the big songs off of the first record like
“Sigh No More,” “Thistle & Weeds,” “Winter Winds,” “White Blank Page” and others really got the crowd into the spirit of the performance. I enjoyed some of the darker songs like “Dust Bowl Dance” which brought a bit more intensity to the proceedings. Songs like that really have the potential to go off the rails (in a good way) and really go against the grain of what people think of when they think of Mumford and Sons.
As the evening continued on, the band peppered their set with several covers including a super low key acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” which I liked considerably more than his synth-soaked original (or maybe I’m still holding the dumb music video for that song against Bruce.) Also on the program was The Beatles’ “Come Together” which featured every member of both opening bands and the six backup musicians Mumford tours with for an obvious crowd pleaser that didn’t really impress much. They also went for a flying by the seat of their pants version of “Sweet Home Alabama,” that while a bit obvious, kind of worked because of the earnestness with which they approached it. Mumford admitted unfamiliarity with the lyrics and they recruited an audience member to sing it. My initial reaction was that the guy was planted, but whether he was or not, it succeeded in sending the crowd into hysterics. The show closed out with their early hit “The Cave” and was a great ending to a pretty good evening of music.
I think Mumford & Sons’ shows would have benefited from becoming popular a little bit slower than they actually did. They’re a young band and had to adjust to large venues nearly right off the bat. Their large support band (which brought the total number of musicians on stage to 10 at times) seemed to bog them down a bit and cut away from the spontaneity that they would’ve likely developed in smaller venues. That being said, while they aren’t exactly blazing new trails in their genre or the music world as a whole, you could do a hell of a lot worse than listening to them. They take a lot of shit for being poppy and generally pleasant, but take a spin around your FM dial and you’ll realize that they could be doing a hell of a lot worse than being a bunch of guys that competently play their own instruments and write catchy tunes.