Concert Review: Mumford & Sons; Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago

While I’m a huge fan of Mumford & Sons, I’m also able to admit that there are legitimate criticisms of their music. Their songs have a tendency to use the same chord progressions and structures: slowly building intro which eventually leads into an anthemic chorus. If I had the technical know-how, I’d layer a couple of songs on top of one another to illustrate this. I feel as if Marcus Mumford and company may be playing it safe in their songwriting, sticking to what they know best, and to what they know will gather the best response from an audience. (Colin McLaughlin of Melophobe discusses this in his review of a recent Mumford show, and gets it spot on: “…if a band is going to pick a trick, a crescendo is a great one to land on, since it’s basically the musical equivalent of eating fat and sugar. It’s also one of the reasons their songs feel so powerful. That said, if Marcus Mumford’s voice wasn’t all that it is, the songs wouldn’t be half as good as they are.” True words, my friend.)

The criticism that I don’t buy is that which says their music is soulless, heartless, fake. Perhaps you could come to that conclusion if all you’ve done is listened to Sigh No More, which is rather slick and polished, particularly for a debut album. But their live show is something else entirely; I watch these four young men perform and all I see is heart and soul. The huge grins on their faces as they play and soak up the adoration of thousands of fans tell me straight away that they love doing this. There’s no faking that sort of joy. These guys aren’t hacks or phonies in it for the money or the fame; they’re in it for the love of the music.

But none of that is what this post is really about. While these thoughts were weighing on me as I embarked on my road trip, this post isn’t about internet bitchery or biased opinions or aging punk rockers tossing around derogatory terms to describe a band they’d never even heard of. Instead, this is a post about three nights of incredible, heartfelt music. Haters to the left, as the saying goes.

Minneapolis’ crowd had an infectious energy from the very start, despite the wait in the cold, one which was longer than anticipated for those of us who thought that the show started at 8 rather than 9. Someone told me that 25% of US sales of Sigh No More came from the state of Minnesota, and while that might just be a made up statistic, based on the enthusiasm of the crowd, I wouldn’t be surprised if that fact were true. According to the band, the show at First Avenue was the quickest to sell out on their US tour. Scalpers were asking $100-150; one desperate fan was offering $200 per ticket in hopes of enticing someone to sell. Face value before fees was $20, by the way.

Massive lines forming hours before doors opened were a common experience at all three shows I attended. In Milwaukee, the line stretched for about two blocks, over a river and winding around corners. What I didn’t know was that this was Mumford & Sons’ first show in Milwaukee and people were obviously very eager to see them. In Chicago, I thought that arriving 90 minutes before doors would still get me a great spot, given that they’ve played Chicago twice in 2010 (Lincoln Hall and Lollapalooza; three times if you count their brief set at a Lolla aftershow at the Hard Rock VIP lounge). Not so, however; the line was already curving around the end of the block and the people at the front had been there since 1:45. Now that’s devotion.

While each show had a similar setlist, that’s to be expected. The band only has one full length album out, after all (if you don’t count the older EPs that were self released, or the recent Wedding Band EP), so it’s not as if they have years worth of matieral to choose from. That’s not to say that each show was without surprise or novelty, however.

Minneapolis saw two new songs appear on the set list: “Lover of the Light”, which the band has been playing since earlier this year (they trotted it out during the May show at Lincoln Hall), and a much newer one called “Below My Feet”, which they said that they’d only played together a few times previously. “Below My Feet” is a really gorgeous song that continues on with some of the religious imagery which is sprinkled throughout the rest of Mumford & Sons’ songs.  I particularly love the chorus: “keep the earth below my feet / for all my sweat, my blood runs weak / let me learn from where I have been / keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn”.  While “Below My Feet” went off without a hitch, “Lover of the Light” came to a halt midway through whenever the power on the stage blew out in the midst of the banjo solo. Rather than be deterred by the unexpected power outage, the quartet soldiered bravely on, bringing out Cadillac Sky violinist Ross Holmes to join them on an unplugged rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel”, which has become a staple song in their live sets in recent months. For their encore, they closed with an unplugged cover of a song by opening act Cadillac Sky, bringing out Cadillac Sky themselves and fellow opener King Charles to sing along.  They also gave “Lover of the Light” a second shot, given that the first go-round was cut short, before ultimately closing with “The Cave”.  The band’s banter and rapport with the audience was delightful as always, even when Marcus accidentally got himself off on a political tangent after someone in the audience shouted out “Fuck Gordon Brown!” during a tuning break. Marcus remarked at at least Gordon Brown wasn’t a threat to world safety (paraphrased); “come on, you guys had George W. Bush.” Fortunately for Marcus, most of the crowd was on the same page as he was, but it could have made for a very awkward moment elsewhere.  He quickly reminded himself that he shouldn’t talk politics at shows, then carried on with the set. 

Milwaukee saw the introduction of two other songs: one less new, “Whispers in the Dark”, and another much more recent song, entitled “Broken Crown”. It’s not wholly new, however, as it borrows heavily from the B-Side “To Darkness” with its lyrics and structure, which explains why I felt as though I already knew the words. Where “To Darkness” comes off as somewhat gentle, “Broken Crown” is more intense with its anger and raw emotion, particularly owing to some of the new lyrics that have been inserted (“crawl on my belly till the sun goes down / I’ll never wear your broken crown / I took the road and I fucked it all away / in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace” and later “in this twilight, our choices seal our fate”).  “Broken Crown” seems to get the biggest reaction from fans, and I’m hoping that’s because people find it to be a solid song, rather than just drunken enthusiasm over a casual f-bomb.  While there wasn’t as much banter in Milwaukee, the show was still very high energy, including a particularly raucous opening set by Cadillac Sky, who were rejoined temporarily by their recently departed lead singer, Bryan Simpson.  (Simpson left for personal reasons; his role has been picked up by Levi Lowrey, who fronted the Minneapolis and Chicago shows.  Although, the posts on Cadillac Sky’s webpage regarding Simpson’s departure and Lowrey’s joining have disappeared, so now I’m very confused.)  Cadillac Sky even got Marcus Mumford in on the action in Milwaukee, literally carrying him out to play drums on one of their songs.

See more after the jump: more reviews, photos, setlists, and YouTube clips.

At Sunday night’s show at Chicago’s Riviera Theater, Halloween costumes were out in full force in the audience, with several people dressed as “Little Lion Men”.  The band commented on this, apologizing for not appearing in costume, but they said that they hadn’t realized just how seriously the US takes Halloween. Keyboardist Ben Lovett commented later that he was, in fact, in costume: as an American.  Well played, good sir.  Well played.  Chicago’s show had its share of unscripted moments, too.  At one point, banjo player Winston Marshall unexpectedly found himself alone on stage in between songs.  In an effort to kill time, he chatted with the crowd and offered to play us a song on the banjo.  Before he could get started, he changed his mind and offered up a drum solo instead.  Well, if there was anything that was destined to bring the rest of the band scurrying back out, it was the promise of a drum solo by a banjo player.  We were informed that Winston had been left to his own devices on stage as Marcus had apparently forgotten to make a stop off in the bathroom before the show started.  TMI, but hilarious anyway.  Winston indulged us with a few measures of drumming as the rest of the band filtered back.  We also learned of Winston’s disdain for cold bread, to which someone in the audience replied: “this is America, we have toasters!”

Witty banter would mean nothing without stellar music to back it up, and fortuately, Mumford & Sons have continued to deliver on that mark.  Their performance is tight, without skipped beats or botched notes, but not so polished as to feel inauthentic.  A two-man horn section joins them on tour this go-round, adding a brightness and vitality to songs like “Winter Winds”.  Marcus Mumford’s voice runs the full range of emotion, from joy to pleading to an angry growl.  At a time where more darling, “twee” sounding folk is popular, it’s a joy to hear something raw and real.  While a majority of their songs are upbeat, perfect for dancing and jumping, these are by no means overwhelmingly happy songs.  The lyrics are full of longing, doubt, relationships gone sour.  “I Gave You All” just kills me every time, especially with its line of “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won”, which is something that rings true for myself and a lot of other twenty-somethings that I know. The repeated line of “I will hold on” in “Thistles & Weeds” starts out as a simple statement but as it’s repeated, blows up into something much larger: a plea, an attempt to convince oneself to stay, an “if I repeat it enough times, it will be true” sort of mentality.  

Openers King Charles and Cadillac Sky did a tremendous job at warming up the crowds.  King Charles is perfect in his eccentricity, but it would be easy to underestimate him based solely on that.  His songs are just as hyper-literate as Mumford & Sons, only with less Steinbeck references and more Oscar Wilde.  He opened his set each night with an a cappella track, then proceeded to deliver a short set of witty, thought-provoking tunes.  A particular crowd-pleaser was his spin on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, swapping out Joel’s lyrics for more timely ones.  (“We all know Tom Cruise is gay” always got a huge response.)  Cadillac Sky blew my mind on the very first night with their high energy and furious playing.  Guitarist and singer David Mayfield is a bundle of heavily-bearded energy on stage, jumping and gyrating and taking pretend naps at the ends of songs.  He’s a showboat, for sure, but he backs that up with some downright amazing guitar playing.  They’re loosely categorized as a bluegrass band, but I’m sure bluegrass purists would disagree.  I classify them as awesome.  All together, the three acts seemed like friends and old family, and when they would join one another on stage, you could tell that you were watching something organic and spontaneous happening.

Before I go, a shout out to all of the great people who I met during my trip. To the kids from Duluth at First Avenue; my fellow Chicagoans at the Riverside; to the artist and the boys in the band from Detroit at the Riviera: thank you all for being awesome people and great concert buddies. I didn’t catch most of your names and we will probably never see each other again, but for those few hours of standing and cheering and singing, we were all friends.

And that’s why I can’t get behind the criticism of Mumford & Sons that says that their music has no heart or soul, that it is meaningless. It takes a special band to bring out the type of exuberant joy I saw in the crowd at these three shows. It takes a special band to inspire the sort of devotion that drives people to travel far from home to see a show (and I’m not just talking about myself here). Say what you will about the sometimes formulaic nature of their music; that might be truth, but the honesty and intensity of their lyrics and performance are what has made their fanbase fall in love with them.


Wagon Wheel (unplugged)


Broken Crown (new song)

Setlists (may not be 100% accurate; based off of the setlist on stage, but I know that several nights saw some changes)

Minneapolis
Sigh No More
Roll Away Your Stone
Winter Winds
White Blank Page
Timshel
I Gave You All
Little Lion Man
Lover of the Light (partial)
Wagon Wheel (unplugged)
Thistle & Weeds
After the Storm
Awake My Soul
Below My Feet
Dust Bowl Dance
Encore
Cadillac Sky cover (unplugged)
Lover of the Light
The Cave

Milwaukee
Sigh No More
Roll Away Your Stone
Winter Winds
White Blank Page
Below My Feet
Timshel
I Gave You All
Little Lion Man
Lover of the Light
Thistle & Weeds
After the Storm
Awake My Soul
Broken Crown
Dust Bowl Dance
Encore
Wagon Wheel (unplugged)
Whispers in the Dark (I think this is where it went in the set list)
The Cave

Chicago
Sigh No More
Roll Away Your Stone
Winter Winds
White Blank Page
Below My Feet
Timshel
I Gave You All
Little Lion Man
Lover of the Light
Thistle & Weeds
After the Storm
Awake My Soul
Broken Crown
Dust Bowl Dance
Encore
Lady in the Water (King Charles cover)
Go to Sleep (Avett Brothers cover)
The Cave