I’ve downloaded a ton of apps on my phone, and aside from stuff like my RSS reader and Tetris (I spend a lot of time on the subway) most of them never get used. Every once in a while, though, these seldom used apps idly occupying space on my phone’s flash memory do come in handy. One of those apps is Shazam (and no, I’m not sponsored by them, unfortunately… hey Shazam people, if you’re reading this, get in touch…”Live4Ever Reviews sponsored by Shazam” has a nice ring to it, no?). For those who don’t know what Shazam is, it’s an app that identifies songs. If you happen to hear a song you’re not familiar with but you kind of like, you can load up the app and it’ll listen to the song for a brief period after which it will display all the relevant information about the song: title, artist album, etc. There are some other features, too, but I can’t say I’ve bothered to try any of them out. The five times I’ve actually used it, it’s worked remarkably well. However, I almost never have a reason to use it.
In any case, one day earlier this year I did find the occasion to fire it up on my phone and I’m glad I did. I don’t remember where I was, the time stamp indicates that it was rather late at night (or early in the morning, depending on your perspective), but I heard a song that piqued my interest and I had no idea who the artist was. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Fleet Foxes, I thought, a little less reverby and medieval sounding, but definitely mining similar territory. Nice big acoustic guitars, sweet harmonies… and a banjo. A banjo? That’s different. It turned out to be “Lion Man” by Mumford & Sons. Sure, the singer sounded a little too much like Dave Matthews for comfort, but I was instantly hooked. I was also way behind the curve on this one.
Dammit. It’s not like I hadn’t heard about the band before, it’s just that there’s so much music being put out these days, it can be difficult to know where to start. Heck, Live4Ever (the site you’re reading this review on) has been covering them for over a year now (Check the archives! There’s stuff about them going as far back as September 2009), so I had heard of them (and the name is quite memorable, recalling a childhood favorite TV show of mine, Sanford and Son), but I had never actually heard them. My bad. Thankfully, Shazam rectified this tragedy and I ran out and got my hands on the band’s debut record, Sigh No More. Much rejoicing ensued. Great fucking record indeed. It wound up being played in heavy rotation in my little world, but because I was late to the party the band’s two upcoming gigs at Terminal 5 were already sold out, so when I got a text from a friend that he had an extra ticket to see the band at Terminal 5, with a profuse amount of thanks I jumped on the opportunity.
On an unseasonably warm November (15th) evening we met up on Manhattan’s West Side and, since we were running a little late and missed the first opening act, King Charles (I would regret this later), we headed straight up to the roof to get our drink on. When we came back down to the floor towards the end of second opening act Cadillac Sky’s set (wouldn’t have minded seeing their whole set either, to be honest), the venue was packed almost as much as it had been during the Raconteurs three night stand a few years back. Not bad for a Monday night. The crowd trended a little older than your typical indie rock show at Terminal 5, but was one of the least disinterested audiences I’ve seen there. Hell, the audience was flat out raucous. Cadillac Sky was in the middle of a full on hillbilly jam, fiddles and banjos all ablaze, and the crowd was eating it up, somehow managing to dance along while packed in sardine tight. Cadillac Sky look exactly how you’d expect they would playing the music that they do, complete with bushy beards and faded overalls; only the banjo-playing kid from Deliverance was missing.
As Cadillac Sky were ending their set, we muscled our way into the middle of the floor at Terminal 5, and aside from a couple of freakishly tall people had a pretty good vantage point to watch Mumford & Sons.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect either from the band or from the audience. I knew I liked the record and that I thought the band had an interesting take on the folkier side of rock music with a bit of an edge. I mentioned above that Mumford & Sons reminded me a bit of the Fleet Foxes, but if it makes any sense I should add that even though the Mumford family (no, they’re not really related… or lead Mumford sure got around a lot as a toddler) come out of an English folk tradition, their sound. to me at least, seems steeped in traditional American folk sounds, whereas the American Fleet Foxes wouldn’t necessarily sound out of place at a Renaissance Fair and exude a much more medieval British sensibility.
The Mumfords opened their set with “Sigh No More”, the lead track off their debut record, and the cavernous Terminal 5 filled with the sweet harmonies of the four band member singing in unison. From the first note to the last, the band was in top form, sounding like grizzled road veterans, which they kind of are at this point, since their two night stand at Terminal 5 is coming at the end of the band’s tour.
One of the things that surprised me as the band began playing was that there was no drummer. Especially since there was a full kit set up on stage, and many of the tunes on the album featured drums, I was somewhat perplexed. What’s worse was that I could hear someone banging on a kickdrum. Very curious, indeed.
It was only when I managed to crane my neck over some of the people standing in front of me that I was able to see that lead Mumford had a little kickdrum set up on the floor in front of him, which he played with his foot, while singing and strumming his guitar. The man’s a veritable one man band. Actually the whole band is a versatile bunch, all capable of singing and switching up on their instruments. Although a roadie did jump out onstage to play the cymbals on a song, the kit was really set up for the lead Mumford himself, who abandoned his collection of open tuned Martin acoustics and a Gibson ES 335 for a pair of mallets with which he proceeded to bash the hell out of the kit, while still singing. I guess that the drum kit, then, was standing in place for the gun in that old theater trope: if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of Act 1, it has to be fired before the end of Act 3… or something like that.
Touring in support of the band’s only full length release resulted in a somewhat abbreviated show, despite the fact that the Mumfords ran through the album in its entirety. The renditions were fairly faithful to the recorded versions, although some of the intros and outros were extended and the songs definitely benefited from the audience participation that accompanied their performance. Since the album’s only about 45 minutes long, how else could the band fill up an hour and a half set?
Well, they played a couple of new songs. Now, usually, when bands play unreleased or forthcoming material with which an audience is unfamiliar, I’m of the opinion that this material tends to come off a little flat. Not that this flat reception is a reflection of poor performance on the part of the band; rather, I think, the problem lies with the expectations of the audience. Especially at a “big” show, a label for which Mumford & Sons at Terminal 5 qualify, the audience is there to hear the band play the songs they’ve been listening to on the radio or on their iPod and to sing and dance along with them. New and unheard material generally tends to preclude the singing along part. Moreover no one’s really sure what to expect. The song is starting off slowly… is this just a slow burn before the song explodes into something more forceful?… is this a quieter number as a whole?… what’s the singer saying… The experience can be a little disorienting to an audience.
This was certainly not the case, however, when Mumford played two unreleased songs (presumably appearing on the band’s next LP), which were received by the audience with all the exuberance you’d expect when “Free Bird” is played at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show. The audience picked up on the songs’ refrains and sang along, while maintaining an extremely high energy level. Like I mentioned above, this was an extremely boisterous crowd. Bouncing up and down in time to the music and singing their hearts out, it was also a crowd that had no compunctions about heckling the band, admittedly in a non-malicious, good natured way, in between songs. The Jersey Shore extra screaming from the rafters during the beginning of “Gave You All” was rather memorable.
The highlight of the night, however, definitely came during the first encore when Mumford & Sons were joined onstage by openers Cadillac Sky and the foppish… er, regal King Charles during for a group performance of King Charles’s song “Sister,” which absolutely brought down the house, in a barn burning hoe-down sort of way. It really was quite a spectacle, some dozen musicians with banjos and double basses traipsing across the stage while harmonizing on a beautifully rousing number… and in the center if it all, King Charles, long hair tucked up in a bun that would be the envy of many a geisha, held court. Great rock n’ roll moment. When the song ended and the openers left the stage, Mumford & Sons ended the night and sent the audience home to a stirring rendition of “The Cave,” one of the standout tracks from their record.
All in all, it was a great show and I’m glad I got to go… so a big thanks to JS and MI for the ticket. I’m also glad I “discovered” Mumford & Sons for myself, even though I might have been a little late to the party… I’d like to think I was fashionably late. I look forward to their next record, and judging by the two songs I heard this night, I think I won’t be disappointed. I just hope they don’t turn into the next Dave Matthews Band. I’d never forgive myself…