Mumford & Sons embrace their inner superstars at sold-out Marcus Amphitheater show
But has the band’s hunger been replaced by complacency?
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When Mumford & Sons played an afternoon Lollapalooza set in 2010, they were relative unknowns, waiting for their debut album, Sigh No More, to catch on in the U.S. In the wake of that performance, they were one of the most buzzed-about acts of the festival. They wouldn’t be inescapable on the FM airwaves for months yet, so the hipster backlash wasn’t even on the horizon, and the old-timey vests and knickers and the “I really fucked it up this time” part of “Little Lion Man” didn’t seem so contrived. Their sound wasn’t exactly original—they basically sounded like an exaggeratedly British Dave Matthews Band without the improvisation—so perhaps their meteoric rise to ubiquity should’ve been predictable. Still, they seemed like a scrappy, good-natured bunch of guys who played very energetic folk rock, and played it hungrily. At the Marcus Amphitheater on Tuesday night, for the first Pabst-curated event at Milwaukee’s biggest outdoor stage, that hunger had been replaced by superstar complacency and bravado, but the music was essentially the same.
“The same” also happens to be the most obvious point of criticism when it comes to the Mumford sound. With very few exceptions, the band’s songs are upbeat acoustic strummers, often indistinguishable from each other save for the lyrics. The initial hit from the band’s multi-Grammy-winning 2012 blockbuster Babel, “I Will Wait,” is so instrumentally similar to its 2010 single “The Cave” that it feels like cheating, and the syncopated 4/4 stomp of “Little Lion Man” is the basic formula for several of the band’s other tunes. Such is the nature of pop music, though, and in Mumford’s case, the folk-rock instrumentation is little more than a rudimentary backdrop for the lyrics and vocals.
Marcus Mumford (no, the band doesn’t contain any of his actual relatives) may have been the focal point of the group all along, but at this show, he was almost the only member of the band worth paying attention to. The man is a great singer of pop music, even better live than on record, and even though his mates’ harmonies feature prominently on the band’s big hits, Mumford’s voice was completely dominant in the mix Tuesday night—probably a good thing, as these guys aren’t exactly The Eagles, and only Mumford’s voice has any discernible character. They milked the a capella portions of the hits, slowing them down for dramatic effect, but still it just sounded like Mumford backed by a faint harmonic hum.
The band was definitely tight, and occasional help from string and horn trios augmented the air of professionalism. Particularly effective were the handful of songs that didn’t sound like all the other songs: the ambient, horn-led intro to “Thistle & Weeds” was particularly haunting, and the delicate “Ghosts That We Knew” that followed was undeniably moving. For the finale of the set, Mumford took to the drum seat for a rousing “Dust Bowl Dance,” toppling the kit in a fit of melodrama that had the crowd in raptures. The encore was also particularly engaging, featuring the band huddled around a single mic for a mellow take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and then a grungy cover of “Come Together” featuring a host of contributors from the opening acts. The visible energy on display during the final handful of songs was infectious, but it served to highlight how little the band had put into the art of performance for most of the show. Mumford & Sons have their audience eating out of their hands, but they seem to be relying solely on the popularity of their songs to carry their live shows these days.