News Column

Mumford & Sons keeps the revival alive

September 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 18--The first music in my life was Irish folk. By the time I was 6 years old, I'd memorized every lyric on the album "The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem: In Person at Carnegie Hall," including a poem by William Butler Yeats.

So, naturally, I gravitated in my late and rebellious adolescence to bands like the Pogues, a British punk band that indulged in folk music arranged in the Celtic tradition. And also, naturally, about four years ago I responded right away to "Little Lion Man," the song that vaulted another British band, Mumford & Sons, into the music world and the center of one of its most recent revivals.

Mumford is a foursome from London that indulges in music that falls into the category of folk, although Grammy nominators have labeled it rock, pop and Americana. (The band has been nominated for 12 Grammys and won two.)

The first time I heard "Little Lion Man" was also the first time I watched its video, recorded in an empty theater, as if it were a live performance.

The band is playing acoustic instruments -- guitar, double bass, banjo, piano, and Marcus Mumford is playing a kick drum, the only percussion other than the stomping of some feet.

"Lion Man" instantly reminded me of a Pogues song, "South Australia," and of a few Clancy Brothers songs, like "New South Wales" and "Legion of the Rearguard": beer-hall songs with hearty sing-along choruses, head-bobbing rhythms and shifting dynamics.

They embellished the music by dressing the part, wearing waistcoat vests and white shirts with granddad collars, looking as if shaving was a weekly obligation and posing as if they might have been a house band in a bordello in "Deadwood."

"Little Lion Man" and its album, "Sigh No More," struck a resounding chord across generations of music fans who found something substantive in the band's music and over-earnest lyrics, which can delve into matters both biblical and Shakespearean. What some people saw and heard was the antithesis to auto-tuned and corrected pop. And they liked it.

After watching a Mumford show in October 2010, music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz wrote in his "Lefsetz Letter": "Mumford & Sons' music sounds authentic. There are no synths, no manufactured beats. It sounds like life. And last time I checked, we're all human. Don't you want something to touch your heart and soul? Great times are ahead. Acts like Mumford & Sons are leading the way."

He was correct, at least partially. Three years later, a small contingent of other bands, including the Lumineers, is making a nice living doing what Mumford is doing: drawing big crowds to theaters and amphitheaters by tapping into a thirst for music that is organic and steeped in folk traditions.

Friday night, Mumford & Sons headlines a show at Cricket Wireless Amphitheater. The show is officially sold out, which means about 18,000 people will be on hand to see a band with only two albums in its discography: "Sigh," released in 2009, and "Babel," released about a year ago.

The albums aren't profoundly different. In his review for Rolling Stone, critic Will Hermes wrote: "'Babel' steps up Mumford & Sons' game without changing it too much. It feels shinier, punchier, more arena-scale than the debut, with the band hollering, hooting, plucking and strumming like Olympian street buskers. The songs lean toward the hooky folk-fest stomps of tunes such as 'Little Lion Man' and 'The Cave,' whose beer-slosh melody and fist-pump dynamics branded 'Sigh No More.'"

It's a throwback sound, one with parallels that go back decades. A story in The New York Times in 2012 compared Mumford to folk-revivalists from the 1960s:

"The vintage Kingston Trio strums lightly, while Mumford & Sons wallops. Both bands are important in the resurgence of folk music in their day. The Kingston Trio gave folk a pop feeling and brought it to mainstream audiences. Mumford & Sons made folk a hip new twist on rock music."

The Kingston Trio arose about the time the Clancy Brothers and Makem jumped into the same revival and became popular in America for their wit, charm and boisterous live performances.

Like all revivals, the folk revival eventually would wane, thanks primarily to the eruption of rock music. But plenty of other revivals have come and gone since.

Country music has seen a few. Some of the neo-traditionalists of the 1980s like George Strait and Alan Jackson have sustained long careers, but others like Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and K.D. Lang have either altered their musical approach or endured a dimming of their popularity.

In the 1990s, the neo-soul movement produced several stars, none of whom has made much of a ripple on the music charts in several years: Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, Maxwell, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Macy Gray.

That was also the time of the short-lived swing/jump-blues revival, which included bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, led by Setzer, formerly of the Stray Cats, who were part of the rockabilly revival in the 1980s.

Mumford & Sons is tapping into music that has been brought back into the mainstream before, music with roots in Appalachia, the country blues and bluegrass. In 2000, the soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" rekindled Ralph Stanley's career and gave birth to bands who indulged in that stripped-down, high-lonesome sound.

But even before that film, songwriters like Gillian Welch and bands like Old Crow Medicine Show were re-creating the music and fashions of the Dust Bowl era.

The alternative-country genre was born in part from the revival of Appalachian, bluegrass and traditional country music.

In the early 1990s, Uncle Tupelo, which forged old-country sounds with a punk aesthetic, wasn't the first band to go down that country road, but it is among the most revered. Its album "No Depression" gets its name from a Carter Family song, and its album "March 16-20, 1992" is a collection of primarily acoustic songs including traditional and old-time country/folk tunes like "Moonshiner," "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" and the Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power."

Uncle Tupelo broke up and split into two bands: Son Volt, which stuck primarily to the Uncle Tupelo formula, and Wilco, which Jeff Tweedy has taken into an array of directions that bear little resemblance to alternative country.

Tweedy's refusal to remain cast in one persona and to evolve as a songwriter and performer should be a lesson to bands like Mumford & Sons and their contemporaries, who are likely to face a reckoning sooner or later: Evolve or wane.

It has been common for some bands or artists to immerse their music in a vintage sound.

The Byrds did it on the country-rock classic "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." In 1981, Elvis Costello & the Attractions released "Almost Blue," a collection of country covers. The Rolling Stones regularly infused their music with country ingredients, as on the "Exile on Main Street" album and in songs like "Faraway Eyes." Even the Beatles dabbled in it: the cover of "Act Naturally" and the country/folk spoof "Rocky Raccoon."

But sustaining the sound over several albums and many years seems like a blueprint for obsolescence, especially these days, when bands get popular so quickly that they stay on the road and don't have time to devote to songwriting. Just two albums into its career, Mumford & Sons is playing to 18,000-plus in arenas and amphitheaters and even larger crowds at festivals.

Is it ready for that yet, when its discography is limited and its sound is somewhat redundant? The jury is out, it seems.

Mumford & Sons this summer played before 40,000 fans at Phoenix Park in Dublin. This is what one reviewer had to say: "The niggling sense of the show as somewhat perfunctory (perhaps forgivable for any band who have relentlessly toured their material to ever-expanding audiences) was initially supported by a set which ebbed and flowed according to the thrust of the music, but both crowd and band came alive during some rowdier build-and-drop numbers."

Another reviewer had this to say about a recent show in Minneapolis: "Too many of the songs followed the same pattern: a soft start, then the tempo picked up, then a big, hard-strumming climax."

One sign of the health of a fad or revival is whether it has reached the point where it has become the object of ridicule. There is plenty of scorn and humor going Mumford's way.

In May, the parodists Key of Awesome released the video "Start a Mumford Band," which parodies the entire new-folk universe and its fondness for hand claps and bursts of "heys" and "hos": "Ya don't need a drummer in a Mumford Band / Ya just stomp your feet and ya clap yer hands"; and "We used to be the house band for 'The Antiques Road Show'; someone sound the trumpets now, let's do some 'heys' and 'hos.'"

But Mumford & Sons had already made plans to poke fun at itself. The band enlisted Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte of "Saturday Night Live," Ed Helms, formerly of "The Office," and Jason Batemen of "Arrested Development" to parody itself in the video to "Hopeless Wanderer," a track off "Babel."

It's all done tongue-in-cheek, a sign perhaps that Mumford & Sons knows that barring a dramatic shift in its music's direction, one day, the hand-clapping will stop and the jig will be up.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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