Mumford & Sons at Xcel Energy Center, 9/4/13
Photo by Tony Nelson
Mumford & Sons
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
There's no question that Marcus Mumford and his band of Sons are brilliant. In one way, at least. Finally someone has capitalized on American pop's two most popular niches, twang and EDM.
Unfortunately, this marketable and stadium-ready combination isn't built to highlight spontaneous musicianship. Over a 105-minute set at the Xcel on Wednesday night, there were few moments that veered outside the predictable build from Mumford's earnest solo affectations over acoustic guitar into the full-on, four-on-the-floor bass drum thump-a-thons. The payoff was the same, over and over, and for the paying customers, this overt sameness of the biggest band of the 2010s was celebrated.
Nearly every song was sculpted in the same fashion as the very first one they performed, "Lovers' Eyes" from 2012's Babel. After first half of the song was played in complete darkness, blue lights eventually illuminated Mumford, keyboardist Ben Lovett, banjo player Winston Marshall, and bassist Ted Dwane. They supremely looked their part as a peasant-farmer boy band wardrobed by American Eagle. The song built to its eventual climax with the help of three string players and a three-piece brass section, as well as Marshall banging his whole body into his banjo, and Mumford adding the kick drum heartbeat.
Photo by Tony Nelson
When it was over, the audience's screams were for real. Not sure what else was, however. Much like Brit-rock pantomime act Coldplay, Mumford & Sons sold us many songs that looked like and had the dynamics of something epic. A trio of sepia-toned screens provided a magnifier for their grimaces of emotional turmoil, which grew ever more furrowed as songs from both from 2012's Grammy-winning Babel and Sigh No More of a few years prior increased speed and loudness. Just like witnessing a muscle-rippled Gerard Butler bellowing "This is Sparta!" in 300, the band made it abundantly clear when we should feel, and what we should feel at every turn.
This night of cloying melodrama had already reached the brim by the second song, the barn-burning BPM-pusher "I Will Wait." Over and over, the backing boys cried wolf with their flailing bodies at Mumford's more pensive side, and gave away any amount of dramatic tension the night could've built. Also, by this point, the lighting rigs were already shooting exaggerated, Deadmau5-worthy golden beams into the crowd.
Photo by Tony Nelson
Photo by Reed Fischer
For all of the simulated outpouring from Mumford during songs, he was nearly impenetrable during each lengthy instrument change -- suggesting his acoustic guitars go out of tune muy rápido. Sometimes one of his mates would speak up, but often the stage would just go dark for a spell. "How many of you have never seen our band before?" Mumford eventually asked the sold-out crowd midway through. After a loud ovation, he followed up by asking, "How many of you have seen us before?" Slightly dimmer response. "That's crazy," he said with a smirk. "It's cute there's so many virgins here." Ah, pious titillation.
One of the night's better diversions came when Mumford shifted up to sit behind a full drum kit for "Lover of the Light," which included a timed blue flash from strings of bulbs hanging from the ceiling just as he bellowed the final "light!" "Thistle & Weeds" had the band switch to electric instruments in front of a hot, red set, and there was a tiny spark of life in the foursome. It even scraped a punk quality, or at least My Chemical Romance-style punk.
For "Awake My Soul," impressively bearded Mike Harris from opener the Apache Relay joined them on lead guitar, which came out in between Mumford's mush-mouthed snarls. The admittedly catchy "Dust Bowl Dance" followed, which brought the frontman back to the drum set, where he seems most at home with brushes in his fists. Lovett hammered on the upright piano, and eventually the mid-tempo rocker exploded into lengthy drum fills from Mumford. In a (possibly scripted) unscripted moment of expression, Lovett threw a mic stand passionately, and then Mumford knocked over one of his floor toms before stumbling to the front of the stage to sing the final passage and close the regular set.
Photos by Tony Nelson
A few minutes later, the quartet emerged on a small stage on the opposite end of the arena. Encircling a single microphone, and swigging beers, they began a song Mumford said was "really, really quiet." A staple of this tour, a delicate version of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" with accordion accompaniment echoed through the room in spine-tingling fashion. It was like watching an entirely different band. Harmonizing beautifully, they focused intently on the structure of the melody and didn't give way to histrionics. "This one's even fucking quieter," Mumford added for the a cappella "Reminder" that followed. And though the hoots of the audience were often louder than the group, this was the one point in the night when they seemed brave enough to let their gifts as vocalists be enough.
It was not to last, however. After a quick shuttling back to the main stage, the band invited their opening acts to join them for a shambolic, overstuffed cover of the Beatles' "Come Together." After the previous successful nod to the Boss, this attempt to convene an E Street-sized outfit was a blockbuster-scale flop with a decided lack of stage direction. Even though they'd done it several nights previous, the members of the Vaccines joining the fracas looked genuinely bewildered. After the guests cleared off, the night ended with stomp-and-clap-by-numbers hit "The Cave," which was punctuated with Dwane awkwardly trying to hoist his man-sized upright bass above his head.
While Mumford & Sons are approaching Fab Four-level popularity, their live abilities aren't worthy just yet. From the overblown facial expressions, the over-reliance on showy lights, and the repeated exclamation points of every song, most of the night's gestures felt like admissions that the material itself was too pedestrian on its own. Once Mumford & Sons figure out that a lot of the heavy lifting of performance is achieved by making it look easy, they may truly have something.
Personal Bias: This was not a concert I was expecting to enjoy. They skipped their most likeable hit, "Hopeless Wanderer," and didn't even fare as well as the Eagles in terms of getting any of their songs stuck in my head. It was pretty easy to get through an assessment of the performance without once accessing the words "folk music," and it was far more tempting to recall the mojo of Swedish folk-techno outfit Rednex's 1994 hit "Cotton Eye Joe."
The Crowd: "Where were you in 2008 when we played the 400 Bar to like 12 people?" Dwane asked at one point, and I wonder if any of those 12 folks who witnessed the band opening for Mumford's ex Laura Marling made it to this one. In the three years since they headlined at First Avenue, their local following has grown exponentially. Now Mumford & Sons are played regularly on KDWB, Cities 97, the Current, K-TWIN, and more, and the population ranged from tattoo-covered cowpunks to teenagers in colored shorts.
Overheard: "I feel like we're at a Nickelback concert."
Random Notebook Dump: Bruce Springsteen has more charisma in his pinky toe than the entirety of M&S.
I Will Wait
Whispers in the Dark
White Blank Page
Little Lion Man
Lover of the Light
Thistle & Weeds
Ghosts That We Knew
Below My Feet
Roll Away Your Stone
Awake My Soul
Dust Bowl Dance
I'm on Fire (Bruce Springsteen)
Come Together (The Beatles)
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