“Devils with Strings: Mumford & Sons at War Memorial”
By Emily J Ramey
It seems like the majority of the English-speaking world could at least tap a foot along to “Little Lion Man” these days. Beyond that, I’d be willing to wager that the majority of that majority’s opinion is that Mumford & Sons are some fierce musicians, the melancholy heroes of the British folk world. And how could they not be? Their lyrics are simple and poetic, their music rollicking and complex. I like to think of them as a sort of 2nd cousin to The Avett Brothers, trading the raw bluegrass overtones that makes the Avetts so compelling to listen to for the fuller, heavier feel of Celtic banjo and folk mandolin.
The young quartet put out their major label debut Sigh No More in February of this year and have since been accumulating some serious industry chops. They were the talk of Bonnaroo over the summer, and their US tour has grown organically into sold out show after sold out show. The band’s passionate energy and collective musical virtuoso is driving and contagious. Frankly, they overwhelm me. But after finally experiencing one of the most powerful live shows of the year, I’m convinced that Mumford & Sons are possessed: only demons can blaze as they did that night – radiating brilliance and passion without consequence, instruments or not.
Their show at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville was a highly anticipated one anyway: tickets sold out in a matter of weeks, a rare occurrence in Music City. November 1st also marked the band’s second performance in Tennessee ever. Mumford & Sons later added a limited performance (set for just hours before the concert) at Grimey’s, the old record store. It sold out before it was even officially announced. Nashville’s Internet presence dubbed the day “Mumford Monday,” in honor.
King Charles opened the show with a husky foreign accent and conductor’s jacket. The crowd’s initial reaction was one of mild confusion mixed with stout curiosity and rightfully so. It takes a certain amount of bravado to stand onstage alone, sporting curls longer than any girl’s and wearing naught but a pink unitard (an outfit that belonged in the Nutcracker ballet rather than a folk rock opener). However, for all his ridiculousness, King Charles’ lyrics were subtle but earnest, his guitar muted but intricate, his voice throaty but clear, and he had won us over by the end.
The only thing I knew about the next act was that the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced their album, which is build up enough. All the same, you’d think maybe the band officially on tour with Mumford & Sons might be a little bit nervous about playing the same stage, but for Cadillac Sky, it was just another day they got to play their instruments and miraculously get paid to do so. Highlights of the C-Sky set included “Human Cannonball” and “Insomniac Blues,” both alive with fervor, lightning fast fingers, and coarse harmonies. The band itself was clever without being gimmicky, sharp without being overly technical.
After the openers, the audience is positively buzzing with the knowledge that there are now mere moments between them and Mumford & Sons. With time to stretch, jot down a few notes, and eavesdrop, I finally take a look around and notice my place among the masses. I have somehow managed to squeeze myself into the exact middle of this tightly packed, flannel-clad crowd: Nashville represented itself well.
At long last, Mumford & Sons takes the stage to raucous applause. Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane are casually dressed in jeans and white cotton shirts, crumpled button-ups and old vests, exuding effortlessness and humility mingled with raw talent. One of them murmurs a low “Good evening” into the mic, and all goes quiet. They start off like the album, playing “Sigh No More,” “The Cave,” and “Winter Winds” in succession, with hardly a moment in between. Already we are beginning to sink into the world they have created for us – gentle, churning, acoustic, and unbridled. The set continues with “White Blank Page,” a fan favorite. Half the audience is singing every word, the other half stomping the tune’s hastening beat.
The band steps back from the gathering maelstrom, letting the energy gather and eddy through the crowd. Mumford himself introduces the next song as a new one called “Keep the Earth Beneath My Feet,” which was followed by sweet, symphonic “Timshel.” Next, “I Gave You All,” a rapturous and stirring tempest, builds into a gilded fury. Incandescent bulbs electrify the stage as the band begins their infamous “Little Lion Man.” Blazing and crackling, the lights strung across the space below the ceiling recall an ancient Italian restaurant; those lighting them from behind create old-fashioned silhouettes reminiscent of 20s Broadway.
By this time, Mumford & Sons fingers are moving at a blistering rate; the audience itself is roiling. People are cheering before, during, and after each tune. The band is now changing instruments here and there – Marshall adding dobro and slide guitar to the mix, Mumford switching to drums for a song or two, Dwane alternating between string and electric bass. The next few songs are a vehement, glowing blur. New “Lover of the Light,” stormy “Thistle and Weeds,” smoldering “After the Storm,” and dynamic “Awake My Soul.”
As for the last song, a scorching “Dustbowl Dance,” Mumford practically snarls the lyrics. The ground is shaking; the lights are flashing; Lovett and Winston are bellowing the chorus; and the crowd is roaring back. The four Brits – sweaty, wide-eyed, and beaming – bow together and leave the stage, but the crowd is practically riotous, chanting and cheering and stomping wildly.
A few teeming minutes pass, the crowd anxiously eying the backstage. Then with a deafening rise in applause, Mumford & Sons reappear with the boys of Cadillac Sky close on their heels. Each of the bands takes a moment to thank the fans, then nine guys on nine instruments start in on a fiery rendition of “Try to Turn the Tide.” Halfway through the number, the people around me are pointing excitedly; whispers ripple through the crowd: there are more figures with instruments in the backstage doorway. “No way,” I overhear, “DUDE, it’s Old Crow!”
And so it is. Nashville’s own Old Crow Medicine Show emerges, instruments in hand, making a total of 22 people on stage. This is a story that audience will be telling for some time to come. Together, Mumford & Sons, Cadillac Sky, and OCMS play Old Crow’s “Cocaine Habit” and all-time favorite “Wagon Wheel.” They finish with a sweltering performance of “Roll Away Your Stone” – a show for the books, from beginning to swelling, tumultuous end.
Mumford & Sons is the kind of show that gets in your blood and heats you up until you’re feverish and delirious, raucous and mad for all the world. The music infects you like a sickness, takes over until you give in to it. It’s fearsome and extraordinary, and I wouldn’t dare miss it.