Mumford & Sons Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion September 17, 2013
It's hard to think of a band that's been so heavily vilified over such a short period of time as Mumford & Sons. Even perennial doormats like Nickelback and Coldplay were given a pass for an album or two, but almost from the moment the Sons' debut album, Sigh No More was released, they've been slagged by fellow musicians (Mark E. Smith of the Fall compared them to Ernst & Young) as well as critics and the general population.
Their crimes? Adopting a faux working-class stance (all four are apparently from well-to-do families), appropriating the trappings of folk music with little attention to the craft, inspiring bands like the Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and a host of others that say "Hey!" a lot in their songs, and -- perhaps most egregiously -- not paying their dues.
I don't care about most of that (I do hate the Lumineers, however). None of this should matter if the band can bring it live. Mocking their upbringings or earnestness or choice of attire is well and good, but can be easily refuted by a bravura performance. Unfortunately, I'm not prepared to make that case, because from where I was standing one significant member of the band didn't have his head fully in the game last night.
I'm looking at you, Marcus Mumford.
First off, Mumford has a lot of sons. The core consists of MM on guitar and mandolin (and occasionally drums), Winston Marshall on banjo and guitar, Ted Dwane on bass, and Ben Lovett on keyboards and accordion. But for about a third of the set, they were also backed by a horn and string section. They opened with "Lovers' Eyes" from the group's second album (Babel, which won Album of the Year at the 2013 Grammys ... more fuel for the haters), then launched into "I Will Wait." Bit of a surprise move there, seeing as how it's their biggest single to date.
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Or so I thought, but it turns out M&S mix their hits in with lesser-known tracks as a matter of course. "White Blank Page," for example, was the fifth cut, followed two songs later by "Little Lion Man." I'll give them this: there aren't many times in your life you'll get to hear 16,500 people singing, "I really fucked it up this time" at the top of their lungs.
Mumford reminded us this was the group's "first fucking show in Houston." To recap, last night's gig was originally supposed to take place back in June, but had to be rescheduled due to emergency surgery for a blood clot on the surface of Dwane's brain. They apologized -- by my count -- twice for the postponement, which struck me as desperately British: "I say, terribly sorry my near-fatal malady caused a hiccup in your holiday plans, wot wot."
Up to Tuesday night, I'd only listened to the odd M&S song here and there, but seeing them live really drove some of those aforementioned criticisms home. Every song, it seems, is an earnestly world-weary ode to eternal, rustic love that follows the verse/STRUM/verse format (they're like the anti-Pixies), rising in crescendo with "Aaaaaa"s thrown in for good measure. "Familiar" would be how you'd charitably describe it, and when even your Jumbotrons are sepia-toned, it's hard to argue with the naysayers.
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But again, a sold-out Pavilion crowd would seem to indicate you're pleasing somebody. The group's fans are nearly as enthusiastic and their detractors are spiteful. I'd be willing to forgive the repetitiveness of the music if at any time the front man looked like he wanted to be there. Throughout the show, but especially during the darker numbers ("Thistle and Weeds," "Ghosts That We Knew") Marcus frequently looked flat-out miserable.
At first I thought it was the unfortunate choice of attire (jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt? Welcome to H-Town), but my wife -- who apparently employed some superpower exclusive to married women -- insisted he was fighting with his girlfriend (or wife; turns out the poor guy is married to actress Carey Mulligan, yet more haterade). I laughed this off at first, but as the set wound down and Marcus distractedly knocked over his drum kit after the closing number ("Dust Bowl Dance"), I had to wonder.
Another possibility: he just doesn't like the arena thing. People I know who've seen them in smaller venues inform me he's very enthusiastic when playing in front of smaller crowds. Oh, the irony.
That said, the rest of the band we're as enthusiastic as their leader was apathetic. Unnecessary apologies aside, Marshall and Lovett were keen to express their gratitude for the warm reception. Marcus even got in one semi-appropriate regional reference, "Texas could be its own country, but you're all 'Nah.' You're like Scotland." And Scotland, as we all remember, was colonized by wankers.
It ended up being a fairly perfunctory set. After closing up with several of their bigger numbers ("Awake My Soul" and "Roll Away Your Stone"), they came out for a brief encore. First was an acoustic cover of "I'm On Fire," and the crowd mostly acceded to Marcus' suggestion that they remain quiet. Finally, "The Cave," one of the hits off Sigh No More. And that was that. Mumford & Sons may be the only band not hampered in the slightest by the Pavilion's 11 p.m. curfew.
We left the show wishing the guys would explore some of those aforementioned dark places. Two albums of quasi-folk are well and good, but if Mumford & Sons really want to prove everyone wrong, branching out musically wouldn't be a bad start.
And Marcus, buy your wife some flowers.
Personal Bias: I tend to prefer my guitars electric.
The Crowd: Walking around, I was happier than I'd ever been that I shaved my beard off two years ago.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I/We love you, Marcus!" Repeat.
Random Notebook Dump: "She's not filming the stage, she's filming the Jumbotron. That's like ... filming your TV while recording the show to your DVR."
Lovers' Eyes I Will Wait Whispers in the Dark Holland Road White Blank Page For Those Below Little Lion Man Lover of the Light Thistle and Weeds Ghosts That We Knew Below My Feet Awake My Soul Roll Away Your Stone Dust Bowl Dance
I'm On Fire (Springsteen cover) The Cave
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