It’s been a while since a young rock act from the U.K. has energized American fans in the way that Mumford & Sons has. If 2010’s platinum selling “Sigh No More” was the group’s breakthrough, then the freshly released “Babel” represents the beginning of a full-fledged international mania; the band’s two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl sold out rapidly, with resale tickets fetching upwards of $500 each. A chilly Saturday evening found the quartet in fine form, confidently digging into its limited catalog while displaying a swagger and rough-hewn charm that neutralized the venue’s size.
On a commercial level, Mumford & Sons has become the first band since the Beatles to simultaneously hold six spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. With “Babel’s” staggering sales figures, a string of high-profile industry accolades and leader Marcus Mumford’s recent marriage to starlet Carey Mulligan, the group has rapidly gained widespread relevance — not just as a musical act but as a consistent talking point in popular culture.
Opening with “Babel’s” hard-charging title track, lead singer Marcus Mumford wildly strummed his acoustic guitar and stomped on a bass drum pedal, single-handedly imbuing the modest arrangement with forceful rhythm and energy. His three bandmates lined the front of the stage, vigorously playing their instruments and singing harmonies. Recent single “I Will Wait” followed, compelling the audience to engage in a delirious sing-a-long that broke the ice and established an interactive exchange between artist and audience.
The band members swapped instruments throughout the evening, introducing mandolin, banjo, electric guitar, piano and upright bass at various junctures. None of the Mumford musicians is a virtuoso instrumentalist, which is a major component of the band’s charm. Where peers Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear revel in intricacy and obtuseness, Mumford & Sons delivers a guttural sense of expression that is much more immediate and instantly engaging.
The middle portion of the program found the group exploring some of its quieter, more contemplative material. “White Blank Page,” with its broad, romantic lyrics, was aided by an elegant vocal harmony, while “For Those Below” channeled early Simon & Garfunkel with a whimsical fingerpicked guitar line and a churning, fiddle-adorned coda. The mood shifted drastically with the rollicking crowd-favorite “Little Lion Man,” followed by the bombastic trilogy of “Lover of the Light,” “Thistle & Weeds” and “Broken Crown.” Openers Dawes joined the group for a lively, sing-a-long version of “Awake My Soul” that was punctuated by banjo and deep layers of vocal harmonies.
Much of the group’s success can be attributed to Marcus Mumford’s distinct vocal approach and lyrical skill. He writes literate songs that are broad in scope but instantly memorable and emotionally charged. In the live setting his performance style is effortless and charming, lending an air of approachability to a group that is rapidly scaling the heights of international popularity.
The evening closed with a four-song encore that included the band’s breakthrough hit, “The Cave,” and a Joe Cocker-inspired rendition of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Where Mumford & Sons will go from here is anybody’s guess, but the band seems to be doing things the right way — maintaining a genuine modesty and purity of musical vision while inviting its audience along for the ride with open arms.