Mumford & Sons have come a long way from their raw and rustic roots to have happily come no way at all. Even though the British quartet smoothed and softened elements of the rough, intimate folk of their 2007 origin story to include flickering arena-rock guitars (on 2015’s “Wilder Mind”) and windy synths (2018’s “Delta”), their newest gigs stress the same homey, confidential vibe as in the past. Even the tales of death and discord that “Delta” brings to Mumford’s joyous lyrical mien seem gleeful when played with a familial smile.
When Mumford & Sons opened their U.S. tour at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, it was as if the hooting and plucking ensemble were busking outside an aged London pub. It was a really nice pub, with pricey lighting, but still.
Barrel-chested vocalist Marcus Mumford wasted no time in making the rectangular, arena-centered stage his own. When he wasn’t commencing concert proceedings with the hard-strummed, slow-building “Guiding Light,” the main Mumford was running to man sets of drums (on “Lover of the Night”), leap into crowds, flash video cameras at the audience and beam like a genial host. He wasn’t ham-fisted or unsubtle about his outward reach (a la the similar-sounding Chris Martin). It was as if Mumford had opened his arms wider than usual to embrace his crowd, and they flocked and nestled comfortably, even to his surprise. “You guys are amazing,” he told the Philly audience, with what seemed like genuine shock, awe and warmth.
Returning to that “similar sounding” comment: In turning its subtly contagious choruses epic and electric, elements of Mumford & Sons’ melodies came across in that grey area between U2 and Coldplay. What M&S have done to cloak that grand flange in concert is heighten the roles of its usual folksy tools, and occasionally put them through FX pedals. Now, fast banjos (courtesy Winston Marshall), bright brass and searing violin replace the delay-heavy chime so familiar to the Edge and his possible influence on “Babel” and “Guiding Light.”
Ted Dwane’s aggressively plucking of a double bass while Ben Lovett hammered a piano through the coda of “Little Lion Man” gave that song a feel of elevation and propulsion familiar to Cold2 (or UPlay), but without Bono’s dogged earnestness. Instead, a craggy Mumford yelled out highly personal refrigerator magnet poetry (“Your grace is wasted in your face / Your boldness stands alone among the wreck / Now learn from your mother / Or else spend your days biting your own neck”) while pounding out a rhythm with a drum’s foot pedal.
Hewing close to their folksy beginnings meant homey touches on gently torrid tunes such as an unplugged “Timshel,” where all gathered around one microphone, or bringing back opening act Maggie Rogers to give the spiritualized “Awake My Soul” a rounder, sensual feel.
Utilizing a primarily all-white lighting rig during the show gave the entire concert a naked purity, and turned the long, stark plane of the stage with its winged sides into a cross between a boxing square and an abandoned ship. That newer songs such as a shivering “The Wild” touched upon a sense of finality (“We saw birth and death / Can’t we be still … I think it’s the wild / Puts the fear of God in me”) put baritone singer Mumford’s wispy highs, raspy lows and ponderous yelps into lonelier perspective. He wasn’t just singing to rouse, as he had in the past. Mumford was singing to plead and to pray.
That doesn’t mean that Mumford & Sons played the entire show as if standing by a campfire in a coffeehouse, or kneeling in a chapel. Instead, they brought the boldly audacious, widescreen electronica of “Delta” down to the bite-sized, while cranking up the volume and power chords of their older tunes.
Though overlong and ripe, the new album’s title track concluded the night’s proceedings with the proper amount of wave-crashing cymbals and breathy vocalizing. Another new cut, “Picture You,” started off as a sultry synth-ballad with a click track and wound up in a cacophony of noise and figurative and literal fireworks. The lowest of “Delta’s” lo-fi numbers, “Darkness Visible,” was good, old-fashioned, loud garage rock with a shiny piano plink. That sort of glowing force helped Mumford & Sons to get truly jiggy with a rustic “The Cave” and the hyper-Celtic “Roll Away Your Stone,” while enhancing guitarist Marshall’s mix of stinging leads and Duane Eddy-ish twang during “Tompkins Square Park.”
Mumford even allowed himself to shout out Philadelphia football lore for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles when he stated that the quiet but stormy “Believe” was about that very championship game. “Actually, it’s about soccer. They’re all about soccer, really.”
For all that was epic and earthen about Mumford & Sons on Friday, they never outstretched or overstayed their welcome. Each tune was punctual and neatly tucked beneath a bedrock of rumbling rhythms, taut brass, soulful violin (courtesy Tom Hobden), elegant keyboard and guitar structures — all so that Mumford could wail, want, hail and hoorah.