Mumford & Sons Storm The Garden
Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 21:02
When the English folk group Mumford & Sons first played in the Boston area, it was September 2008, and they were opening for Laura Marling at International Community Church in Allston. Not the most glamorous venue, perhaps, but just the thing for a fledgling band trying to get their foot in the door and drum up some buzz for their soon-to-be released first album.
This past Tuesday, Mumford & Sons was back in Boston, but in slightly different circumstances. This time the band played a sold-out show at TD Garden, enchanting a crowd of 20,000 adoring fans who sang along to every word and strummed imaginary banjos with relish.
It’s been a good few years for Mumford & Sons, to say the least. 2010 saw the release of their first album, Sigh No More, in the U.S. and a steadily growing popularity thanks to hits like “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave.” Bigger festival and concert gigs, Grammy recognition and hosts of other musical awards followed, leading up to the release of Babel this past September.
As fans flocked into the Garden on Tuesday, they were greeted by a pair of opening acts hoping to strike it big in similar fashion. First up was Ben Howard, the British singer-songwriter who has ascended in popularity in the UK but is still largely unknown stateside. Howard unassumingly strode on stage for a laid-back set of folk ballads that showcased his vocal prowess, acoustic guitar skills, and drumming abilities. The audience seemed receptive—especially to Howard’s rendition of his popular “Only Love”—yet many seemed bewildered when he left the stage after a mere handful of songs. Howard’s star is clearly on the rise, but the concert didn’t give him enough breathing room, leaving audiences wanting more.
The opposite was true of the second act, The Felice Brothers, a roots rock group from upstate New York. Although their brand of electric folk-rock was more energetic than Howard’s mellow acoustic sounds, audiences seemed to get antsy as their set extended on. The Felice Brothers played with admirable skill and energy, but they left an all-too-fleeting impression.
After two hours of waiting, the crowd got what they were looking for as Mumford & Sons opened with “Babel.” Hammering on a banjo and howling with the heart-on-sleeve earnestness that is the band’s principle modus operandi, frontman Marcus Mumford instantly won over the crowd. “You’ll build your walls and I will play my bloody part / To tear, tear them down,” Mumford sang as the crowd roared with approval. It was a fitting sentiment to begin a show that found the band tearing down the walls between performer and audience, transforming a massive and impersonal venue into a setting that felt intimate in spite of itself.
Mumford lost no steam as they rolled into “I Will Wait,” the lead single from their latest album. As soon as the first chords were struck, the audience responded with an excited surge of recognition. It was a pattern that repeated itself with each successive song—this was an audience that clearly knew the band’s catalogue, inside and out.
Early highlights included “Winter Winds,” a lovely and expansive song anchored by a vivacious horn section. The concert’s lighting tricks were particularly effective here, sending out wavy, white lights across the floor section that gave the illusion of winter winds rippling through the audience. A few songs later, such showman-like tricks were reined in for “White Blank Page,” with Marcus Mumford highlighted alone on a dark stage as the song began. The song, with its nakedly confessional chorus (“Tell me now where was my fault / in loving you with my whole heart”) is one of the group’s most powerful, and Mumford’s emotional performance quieted the Garden down in hushed admiration, before the song kicked into high gear with its rage-filled second half.
It’s the kind of thing Mumford & Sons does so well: starting a song off in soft and subdued fashion before working up into a perfectly orchestrated frenzy of mingling banjos, guitars, and various other instruments. The band pulled it off repeatedly with songs like “Hopeless Wanderer,” “Thistle & Weeds,” and “Lover of the Light.”
Still, some of the concert’s best moments came in songs that were content to stay in a softer register. “Timshel” was one such moment, a short and graceful expression of solidarity (“As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand”) which provided the groups’ loveliest harmonies of the night. It was just the thing needed before launching into the crowd-pleasing “Little Lion Man,” the song that first put the group on the map.
Throughout the night, the band engaged the audience with amusing anecdotes and between-song chatter that made the Garden feel like a small-scale club rather than a massive stadium. But for the encore, they literalized this tendency by running to a tiny stage at the back of the ground floor, sending fans on the floor scrambling to get a better view. With only one acoustic guitar and three voices, the group played “Reminder,” an exquisite and often-overlooked track from Babel. Then they went completely a capella for “Sister,” an early rarity not featured on either album but a recognizable tune for devoted fans. Despite some attention-grabbing shouting from drunken audience members, this two-song acoustic encore had the crowd in an appreciative reverie.