Since the release of their first studio album Sigh No More in 2009, Mumford and Sons has enjoyed an almost meteoric rise to fame. Second album, Babel, sold over one million copies in the US in just over six weeks and the accompanying tour has cemented their position as America’s favourite band. Immensely popular in the UK too – Babel debuted at the top spot in the UK album charts – their success here has been accompanied by questions regarding the authenticity of their sound and style. Can they be described as a derivative of bluegrass simply because they have a banjo and a mandolin? Does the fact that they often use a small horn section mean they can’t be called folk? These questions, however, were not plaguing the 15,000 capacity crowd at Birmingham’s LG arena. From the anthemic, foot-stomping, arm-waving sing along of ‘I Will Wait’ to the pared down tender simplicity of ‘Reminder’ misgivings about authenticity seemed fairly irrelevant.
The LG Arena is by no means an intimate venue and the band did confess that they had been intimidated by the thought of such a massive audience in such a big room. Effort had been made though to try to dispel the impersonal arena atmosphere. Strings of carnival lights hung low over the heads of the standing audience and the crowd enjoyed the conjuring talents of Piff the Magic Dragon after the second support act, the well-received American folk-rock band, Dawes.
Despite their suggestion of nerves, Mumford and Sons seem pretty much at home in their surroundings. After opening with an intensely played and intensely rewarding ‘Babel’ they stormed through 15 tracks, the energy intensifying with each new song. Songs from the first album were interspersed with the second and the audience knew every word to each one. ‘Below My Feet’ was as keenly received as better-known tracks and the crowd’s rather haphazard clapping intro drew a wry smile from Marcus Mumford. ‘Little Lion Man’ saw Mumford attack his guitar with ferocity joining to a crescendo with Winston Marshall’s frantic banjo playing, their exuberance matched fully by the crowd.
After this the band slowed things down a little with ‘Thistle and Weeds’ and ‘Ghosts That We Know’ which featured an impressive fiddle break and more stirring harmonies. Fiddles and a three-man horn section beefed up the sound on ‘Lover Of The Light’ while Mumford got behind the drums. All four members of the band are multi-instrumentalists (this might account for some pauses between songs which could have been filled with a little more stage banter) and an impressive array of instruments was showcased with Ted Dwane switching to double bass for the soaring ‘Winter Winds’, Mumford on mandolin and Ben Lovett on accordion. Dawes then headed back on stage (as did Piff) for a superb rendition of ‘Awake My Soul’ and the band completed their set with a powerful version of ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ which they finished a cappella.
This segued beautifully into their encore where, to the delight of the crowd, they walked through the auditorium to a little raised platform behind the sound desk where they played two acoustic songs. If it was an intimate atmosphere that they were trying to create they couldn’t have got much closer than this. ‘Where Are You Now’ and ‘Reminder’ verified that Mumford and Sons is a band that know their audience and know what their audience appreciate. They are just as impressive with two mics and a guitar as they are with a full selection of band members, and effortlessly held the 15,000 fans captivated.
Then it was back onto the main stage for a super vigorous version of ‘The Cave’. Marshall’s banjo took centre stage with Mumford’s vocals though they were almost drowned out by the communal singing even that the concert had become. The enthusiasm and energy on stage reverberated around the arena. This could (should?) have been the end, but they admitted there was time for just one more song. Having not yet played ‘Sigh No More’ anticipation was at fever pitch. Dawes returned again and, somewhat surprisingly, Mumford and Sons closed with a cover of the Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. ‘Sigh No More’ was left untouched – perhaps the only disappointment in an otherwise terrific show.