Mumford and Sons | The Low Anthem | Matthew and the Atlas The Pageant June 5, 2011
For all of you who weren't among the lucky clickers who obtained tickets to last night's Mumford and Sons show at the Pageant, this is how it went down: At 4:30 p.m., a line forms. Not anxious adolescents but 200 grown-ups melting into the sidewalk for the privilege of coiling up again inside Halo Bar for "early" entry at 7 p.m.
An hour later the sell-out crowd has assembled inside, ready to erupt. The quietest moments elicit asylum-escapee screams. The shushing is enthusiastic.
Marcus Mumford, in a vaguely old-timey vest and a vaguer mustache, begins on acoustic guitar with a slow, gentle strain: without fail, it's (platinum) album-opener title track "Sigh No More." His vocal delivery is slightly nasal, full of feeling and deliberate, underlining each phrase. The audience mouths every word, even if the meaning is vaguer than exhaust in fog.
While Mumford's vocal intensity builds, the melody trickles to near-silence. Then: the switch. The strumming picks up pace, the crowd starts clapping, and "Country" Winston Marshall - natty rattail and all - breaks in with a double-time line on the banjo he's only been ogling until now.
Commence the first of a thousand rising wordless choruses, generating a googolplex of "ah-AH"'s. Keyboardist Ben Lovett and bassist Ted Dwane waltz with their instruments and add unconstrained harmonies, all while somehow wearing self-deprecating grins. It's a singalong, clapalong, stomping free-for-all.
This is not a jam band, folks. The songs end, and abruptly. Cathartic blue balls ensue. Repeat.
Mumford and Sons followed the same script that it has since its first St. Louis show a year ago, at a sold-out Off Broadway. Last night, the band's hybrid folk and themes of feel-good martyrdom translated easily to a crowd of 2,000 without losing energy or intimacy.
What was clearer in this venue was Mumford's flair for theatrics. Effectively choreographed lighting, including strands of white lights strung over the audience like a barn-dance (or a John Mellencamp show), complemented the string-swept soundscapes. Ratcheting up the drama, Marcus Mumford delivered lyrics like soliloquies - such as his final spoken lines on regular-set-closer "Dust Bowl Dance" - so that I came to imagine Mumford as cousin to Colin Meloy: still bookish, but more accessible in his histrionics.
In addition to playing all but one song from its debut album, Mumford played five new songs. "Lover of the Light" and "Whispers in the Dark," the two of these songs that showed the most deviation from the anthemic Americana formula -- delving instead into bygone arena rock -- are also not "new," as both have been kicking around the band's live shows for more than a year. The new song that sounded most like an indication of the band's current state was road song "Hopeless Wanderer," which added piano, power chords and horns to the lament-hootenanny progression over lyrics, "Hold me fast 'cause I'm a hopeless wanderer/I will learn to love the skies I'm under."
The highlight of the high-energy set was its stillest moment: when the band abandoned the PA to stand at the front of the stage and sing "Timshel" a cappella with minimal strumming.
Who knows why this music is resonating with the mainstream right now. Critics might call it a gimmick and Mumford's affinity for Americana a facade. But the harmonies were imperfect, down-to-earth and gorgeous. And when the woman beside me embraced her friend, breathing, "That was a religious experience," the four voices echoing platitudes through the room dissolved into all the ears aching to catch them.
Matthew and the Atlas won over the crowd early, thanks to Matthew Hegarty's stunning vocal range, control and power. With a soulful tremor that recalls Glen Hansard or Cat Stevens, Hegarty led the English quintet through folk that followed Mumford dogma: be as melancholy as you want, but make the melody swell.
The Low Anthem - catch them this summer at Loufest! - mixed instrumental ingenuity with lonesome whimsy for an enchanting folk cocktail. Opening with "Ghost Woman Blues," the quartet gathered around a single mic stand to harmonize, led by Ben Knox Miller's high, delicate voice and bolstered by the electric Jocie Adams. After that, each member played multiple instruments - often over the course of a single song - including clarinets, a pump organ, (what I think were) saws, (what appeared to be) a French horn, and two cellphones into which Miller whistled, creating an eerie, endless echo.
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: I'm a fan who's been an advocate for Mumford in the mainstream. But after hearing this same album performed live three times in the last year, I'm ready for Mumford to move on - and wow me once again. Overheard: After playing a new track that featured electric guitar and bass, the roving frat party behind me declared, "Fuck the banjo, man. It's fucking stupid." If this is an indication of where the audience demographic is headed, well, say hello to the headliners of Pointfest 35.
Mumford and Sons Setlist: 1. Sigh No More 2. Roll Away Your Stone 3. Winter Winds 4. Below My Feet 5. White Blank Page 6. Timshel (no PA) 7. Hopeless Wanderer 8. Little Lion Man 9. Lover of the Light 10. Thistle and Weeds 11. After the Storm 12. Lover's Eyes 13. Awake My Soul 14. Dust Bowl Dance Encore: 15. Whispers in the Dark 16. The Cave