Better than: It’s cool to admit, apparently.
I honestly don’t understand the voracious hatred some have for Mumford & Sons. I get that banjos/mandolins/dobros aren’t for everyone: there is no law that says you have to like fiddles and boots-as-percussion instruments, same as there isn’t one that requires you enjoy heavy metal or doo-wop or techno. I can see why one look at how they dress, from their suspenders to their waistcoats to their weathered wingtips, could easily lead to thinking that it’s all for the sake of buying into the alt-folk image. I’d believe you if you said you’d puncture your own eardrums with the nearest stabby object if you heard “Little Lion Man” one more time, and I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that it’s weird that an English band got nominated for an Americana Grammy. Still: since when has wardrobe, genre or radio airplay served as stand-alone criteria for dubbing a band as a good or bad one? Why can’t their talent, lyrical strength and overall musical aptitude cut them some slack, seeing as the songs themselves aren’t worthy of sonic exile? What’s wrong with just writing Mumford & Sons off as “It’s fine, just not my thing” vs. “Dude screw all of that Civil War/half-ass folk revival shit!”?
As much as I wish that my respect for Mumford & Sons for these very reasons was enough to satiate me and prove these people wrong, it didn’t. It might’ve been that some of the faster songs felt slow and dumbed-down last night, seemingly to up the sing-along ante. Maybe it was because an arena full of drunk people couldn’t keep themselves from shrieking “ROCK ON!” or “LOVE YOUUU” or “FUCKIN’ NETS YEEEAH!” even when the band begged them to be quiet after they sprinted to a platform in the middle of the crowd for two songs completely a capella. Or, hell, it could’ve just been an off-night, one where their cinematic, show-stopping songs came across as borderline garish and the softer verses flew out into the expanse of the stadium and crashed halfway through GA. Whatever it was, something about the Mumford & Sons I’ve loved and defended was noticeably absent for most of the rock spectacle they set before us in Brooklyn last night. And for someone who likes banjos, four-part harmonies, lyrics that clutch at your aorta by way of a British accent and a decent take on a modern folk ballad, it wasn’t that I didn’t like it–it was just a “It’s fine, it’s just not my thing” kind o’ thing.
Critical Bias: The first time I saw Mumford & Sons was three years ago at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, a basement room with a stage that can barely fit six players and a 575-person capacity. You could hear a pin drop throughout the majority of the set, which showcased the command they had over their instruments, their voices and their ability to listen to communicate through their guitar/double-bass/piano/banjo/etc. accordingly. Whether you’re an emcee, a concert cellist, a pop diva or a dude who puts down his banjo for a sec to harmonize with the rest of his band a capella, the ability to hush a crowded room within the first four bars of a tune is a feat worthy of recognition. That live experience is part of the momentum behind a meteoric rise from rock clubs to concert halls to arenas before the release of a sophomore record.
The songs of both Sigh No More and Babel deliver that intimacy through headphones and stadium speakers for Mumford fans. “The Cave,” “I Will Wait,” “Roll Away Your Stone”–everyone threw their hands in the air as though they were praising the gospel of Marcus Mumford, and they danced accordingly to the riotous renditions of the band’s bigger singles. What was lost at the Barclays Center last night was this closeness, this shut up you’re gonna miss it vibe that works so beautifully with “Sigh No More” or “Reminder,” despite their best efforts to make it happen.
Overheard: “That’s not how you behave at all as a crowd. Fuckin’ rowdy, you are!” Marcus Mumford, comparing last night’s crowd to the room full of folded arms and unimpressed facial expressions they apparently played for at their last New York gig.
Random Notebook Dump: “Do not understand the power this band has that translates to grown men do-si-doing like kids in a kindergarten music class.” I tweeted that out last night after watching 20 people in front of me throw their coats, purses and half-empty cups to the ground so that they could hook arms and hop around like crazy people during “Roll Away Your Stone.”
Mumford & Sons | 2/6/13 | Brooklyn, NY Setlist
I Will Wait
Below My Feet
Little Lion Man
Lover of the Light
Thistle and Weeds
Ghosts That We Knew
For Those Below
Roll Away Your Stone
Dust Bowl Dance
All photos Hilary Hughes.