The band's unwavering sincerity was an asset, not just a calling card, Friday night in City Park.
Friday marked a very sincere start to the 20th anniversary edition of the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience. Bands singing about their feelings while playing guitars, basses and drums with at most a soupçon of irony dominated the day, topped by headliners Mumford and Sons. Mumford’s sincerity is the band’s calling card, so much so that before the day started, I wondered if they’d sound anachronistic in 2018. But the old school rock ’n’ roll values on display around them gave Mumford some musical cover, and at the end of a week when insincere, duplicitous discourse was central to the public conversation, Mumford’s direct, heartfelt nature made the band seem right on time.
The folk revival that spawned them in 2007 is now more than a decade in the past, and while the acoustic instruments remain a part of the band’s musical vocabulary, they hasn’t been the whole of it for years. Mumford and Sons literalized that “not even electricity gets between us and our fans” aesthetic of that moment when they played “Little Lion Man” hootenanny-style massed on a small satellite stage at the lip of the runway. Moments later though, they reached for musical grandeur bringing the wonders of cables and amps into play, going for a big, emotional ending in “Tomkins Square Park.” During “Believe,” Marcus Mumford sang, “So open up my eyes / tell me I’m alive” as the gesture might be the last thing he and his beloved ever do.
That love of the big, emotional moment framed in a rock vocabulary made me think of U2 frequently during the set. Like Bono, Marcus Mumford threads a soft spirituality through songs that could be taken as more explicitly Christian by those so inclined. He often sang directly to an ambiguous “you,” which opened the door to that person being a savior, Savior, or lover. His metaphoric language played the same game—“Awake My Soul,” for an obvious example—and the musical tendency toward ascending, uplifting melodic lines were consistent with that vibe.
Because of that, my cynical self wrote in my notes, “Marcus Mumford = Best. Youth Pastor. Ever,” a thought that isn’t quite right. He’s more compelling than that. The band’s musical and lyrical earnestness can be a bit much, but like a proper rock star—a U2 similarity, again—his unquestioning commitment got me and I suspect a lot of harder hearts to buy in for the show’s hour and a half.
“We’ve got some mean songs for you motherfuckers,” Mumford said at one point, leaning on the last word like he finally got up the nerve to use it. He said it introduce “Guiding Light,” one of three songs in the set from the upcoming Delta. “Guiding Light” is so Mumford 1.0 that I assumed it had always been part of the show, but it wasn’t the first new song in the set. The band started with “See a Sign,” which opened with minimal keyboard backing as Mumford asked, “How do I presume / when there’s so much at stake.” Then, a bracing, Edge-like electric guitar energized the song, setting the stage for the numerous U2 echoes throughout the night. For the encore, Mumford brought out strings to add texture and tension to the new “If I Say.”
The belief those songs and the show demonstrated in the meaningful possibilities of rock ’n’ roll on occasions made the band ponderous—“Awake My Soul,” again—but it also made Mumford and Sons the right band for the night. In a week when naked dishonesty and cynicism was hard to escape, it was reassuring to hear someone believe wholeheartedly in something positive.