The British folk-rock band balanced the sound fans knew with its newer, harder one, but the show came together when it merged the two.
[Updated] [Mumford and Sons played Zephyr Field Saturday night, and new My Spilt Milk contributor Piper Serra was there and filed this report.]
The sun was setting over Zephyr Field, as the Foo Fighters' “Best of You” played softly in the background. Couples walked across the field, sipping cold beer and carrying T-shirts branded with retro-style logos painted across a faded American Flag. This is Mumford and Sons circa 2016, arena rock band in the making.
The Mumfords are redefining their recognizable bright, soulful, British folk sound. Gone are the sets that exclusively featured fiddles, banjos, and acoustic guitars. Mumford and Sons opened with “Snake Eyes” from their newest album, Wilder Mind, equipped with instruments worthy of any classic American rock band. As if to prove this point, Marcus Mumford took center stage, stood on top of a speaker and shredded the electric guitar solo at the end of the song.
In the first half of the set, the band did mix in the hits and the crowd pleasers, including “Little Lion Man” and “Lover of the Light” but there was a marked and even awkward transition, as the band members hurried to switch from keyboard to baby grand piano or electric guitar to banjo. The constant was Tom Hobden, who dutifully played the fiddle through the entire show.
The juxtapositions were jarring at times, if only briefly. Fans connected to the band as a British take on Americana, and while they were there for the new songs, the gear shift took a moment as it became apparent that the band is in a moment of transition, even redefinition.
The turning point in the set came when opener Blake Mills and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band walked onstage to cover “The House of the Rising Sun.” This is when Mumford hit their stride. Mills' rich, electric guitar synthesized effortlessly with Mumford’s acoustic guitar. There was in instant connection between the two musicians, a sense of mutual respect and enhanced collaboration. The sounds weren’t in conflict, but instead balanced each other out.
They broke into “Awake my Soul” with vigor and finesse. Mills stayed on stage, and the energy from the crowd was electric. The back and forth between the musicians created drama and tension. The audience sang with the band and sang for themselves. The ballpark was filled with this sound that was new yet familiar as the familiar, haunting lyrics resonated with a new meaning, a new sound.
Mumford and Sons played their old favorites with a new sense of style. Instead of swaying to sweet and hollowing melodies, the crowd was screaming, stomping, and thumping with a new energy. The band, especially keyboard player Ben Lovett, brought in the elements of folk that the fans had come to expect, with a livewire piano performance during “Timshel.” Mumford was a genuine star. At one point he jumped off the stage during a song to run through the crowd. As the thousand hands of fans who wanted to connect to him slowed his return, Lovett jokingly asked, “Can we have our lead singer back now?”
As the show drew to a close, Mills joined the band onstage again during the encore for a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” Mumford and Sons first performed this song in 2013, the same year their film The Road to Red Rocks came out. However, for this band in 2016, this song hinted at something deeper brewing under the surface. Mumford and Springsteen began as fans of Woody Guthrie and classic American folk. Springsteen morphed his music into something larger and Mumford and Sons seemed to be doing the same Saturday night, redefining what they are both in terms of their music and their performance. The songs from the newest album Wilder Hearts have different feel from Babel and Sigh No More, and by the end of the night, many of the songs on those albums had been retrofitted to suit the band's evolution. Mumford and Sons aren’t just earnest Brits anymore fannishly circling a single mic in imitation of old Opry broadcasts; they're an arena rock band ready explore what happens when their sincerity meets fame and glory.
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Updated 1:42 p.m.
The Foo Fighters' title has been corrected to "Best of You."