Mumford & Sons - In control at the Bowl
This was Marcus Mumford, namesake of the unlikely but uncommonly compelling British sensation Mumford & Sons, a little less than three years ago, just after the group played the tiny Troubadour for the first time in February 2010, the week their debut dropped on this side of the Atlantic:
"We've heard that if you work hard in America, and you really go for it, then you can end up having a career just here, because it's a big enough place," he told me a few days later. "But we really try not to think too far ahead. There are lots of temptations for new bands – to move up in venues really quickly and get big producers and spend loads of cash on a big show, not to mention things like drugs and drinking and girls.
"We just think, like, don't (mess) with what we have. Let's just do what we know and see where it goes from there."
It has gone, as John Lennon used to tell his mates, to the toppermost of the poppermost. Indeed, all the way to the site of one of the Beatles' most fabled performances, the Hollywood Bowl, where this young quartet in vintage threads, picking and strumming traditional acoustic instruments, just played the first of two sold-out shows.
The relatively rapid rise of Mumford has been simply staggering, especially in the States, still the toughest nut of all for an import to crack. In the 30 months between the quiet arrival of "Sigh No More" and the astonishing first-week success of its follow-up "Babel" in late September – 600,000-plus copies sold, besting ballyhooed releases from Green Day and No Doubt and ranking second for the year behind Taylor Swift's instant-platinum "Red" – these earnest folk-rock revivalists have racked up more achievements and widening audiences than most veteran bands twice their age.
In addition to nabbing best British album at the BRIT Awards last year, the quartet has already garnered six Grammy nominations, including spots in all four of the most coveted categories, save for album of the year – a matter that should be corrected when the 2013 choices are revealed Dec. 5, as "Babel" is highly likely to receive a raft of nods. (They also got to perform at the 2011 Grammys alongside Bob Dylan, helping back him on "Maggie's Farm," a deep honor for any neo-folkie.)
Then there's Mumford live, an emotionally absorbing experience that is really the motivating force behind their runaway ascendency. It produces a soul-enriching fervency for both their dynamic energy and hymnal harmonies that has resulted in rapturous crowds of enormous size.
When they played Coachella just after sundown last year they drew as many people to the main stage as headliner Arcade Fire; I suspect they might be the Friday night special for 2013. These Bowl shows, as hot a ticket as Streisand's at the same landmark this past weekend, sold out so fast, there's no doubt two more dates would have done just as well. A mind-boggling feat considering the biggest Southern California venue they'd starred at previously was the Palladium.
But that's what happens when your rousing sound connects with such broad demographics, from older fans for whom Mumford rekindles memories of the Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel to younger ones who have responded with the same elated urgency that has greeted only a few other pond-hopping juggernauts, like U2 and Coldplay. Logically but still unbelievably, they've sailed over radio boundaries: Mumford songs are regularly aired not just on edgier tastemaker KROQ but also mainstream monolith KIIS.
Such explosively yearning music has had an immediately powerful effect on women in particular, whose purchasing power should never be underestimated. Mumford as a whole is the anti-Bieber, offering hyper-idealized romance for the smarter set, churned by gallant lyrics of gothic desire: "Press my nose up to the glass around your heart," Marcus sang at the outset of Saturday's Bowl opener, his new mustache giving him an air of matinée idol, especially when viewed in black-and-white on giant side screens. "I should've known I was weaker from the start / You'll build your walls and I will play my bloody part / To tear, tear them down."
That passion only grew as this 20-song show wore on, morphing from the spiritual surge of "I Will Wait" and the heart-rending recriminations of "White Blank Page" to the broader philosophizing of the band-of-brothers anthem "Timshel" and the benedictory passages of "Awake My Soul." (For that they were heartily joined by acclaimed, if sometimes bland, L.A. band Dawes, one of two opening acts, along with Aaron Embry. At their best, Dawes can jam forcefully without obliterating melody, like finer My Morning Jacket; at their weakest, they're as dull as America's box set outtakes.)
Women have flocked to such humble sermonizing in droves, and without having to drag along their significant others, who have responded to the group's mix of pub-level realism, open-faced optimism and Dave Matthews dramatics just as resoundingly. They all were on their feet for every minute of Saturday's show (a favor that had to be asked of Australian crowds, Marcus mentioned) and singing along loudly. Perhaps too loudly. Guy behind me who knew every word: You did pay to hear them perform, right?
What's most astonishing, however, is how even-keeled Mumford & Sons have remained. Their Bowl debut was an utterly commanding performance from start to finish, at times almost as glorious a spectacle as Coldplay's illuminated dazzler here earlier this year. Yet there was gratefully no wide-eyed what-are-we-doing-here shock about their demeanor, nor was there impenetrable seriousness about their presentation, even in the most pristinely meditative moments.
As much as they aim to please their sudden bounty of overexcited devotees and shape them into a lasting fan base, their focus remains resolutely on the music. It threatens to turn hopelessly samey, but so far the group continues to forge forward, just as Marcus indicated they would, at a steady pace. They've wisely added occasional horns and fiddle, expanding first-disc material until it's sonically richer, particularly noticeable during "Thistle & Weeds" (much because of Winston Marshall's sheen of guitar distortion) and the long-gestating "Babel" cut "Lover of the Light," which sounded positively symphonic compared to its Troubadour incarnation.
"The last few years have been absolutely amazing for us," keyboardist Ben Lovett told the adoring throngs after two songs. There wasn't any other word to describe the feeling, really: "Standing up here looking at all your faces ... it's pretty amazing."
"But let's forget about the sense of occasion," he insisted, "and have a dance. Let's have some fun."
And so they did, intensely but joyously. Until curfew was minutes away and they brought Dawes out once more to salute the British Invasion leaders who first stood on this hallowed stage, by roaring through the Joe Cocker version of "With a Little Help from My Friends."
All heart, pure class. No wonder they're so huge.
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