They arrived on stage with their hair straggly and their shirt-sleeves rolled up, looking as if they’d spent a hard day at work in the cider brewery or the wood-turning workshop, and hit the ground strumming with the title track from their latest album, Babel. The crowd responded with rapture, and Mumford & Sons were off, spreading warmth, bonhomie and rootsy vibes to the farthest reaches of the O2.
In the three years since the release of their debut album Sigh No More, these four Londoners have driven a horse and cart through the world’s pop charts with their stirring songs created in an astutely chosen blend of styles – English and Irish folk, American bluegrass, pop and rock. They have also attracted enormous opprobrium from the sniffier end of the record-buying public, repelled, it seems, by their supposed inauthenticity and by their sheer popularity.
Well, I saw nothing in this two-hour show to get cross about: Mumford & Sons may not be a bunch of horny-handed sons of toil, but their music has a certain emotional charge. And it’s been a while since I saw 18,000 people held captivated by a band playing largely acoustic instruments. Oh, and one of them plays the banjo, which can only be a good thing.
I would, though, take issue with the sonic sameness of much of their repertoire – songs that follow a now well-ploughed furrow: rapidly strummed acoustic guitar, triple-time signature, lead singer Marcus Mumford’s gravelly voice emoting in a not especially tuneful way, the thump of the bass drum. It’s music with plenty of drive and momentum (indeed, it’s excellent for driving), but not much in the way of variety or melody.
They do, though, have a handful of sparkling individual gems in their little waistcoat pockets, chief among them “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave”, both performed here to raucous singalong accompaniment from the crowd. Also worthy of appreciation were the rich textures of their music – especially when brass and strings were added – and their well-constructed close harmonies.
They seemed genuinely chuffed that this was their biggest ever indoor show (keyboardist Ben Lovett: “There’s shitloads of you out there!”), and celebrated with a raucous finale, joined by support band Dawes: “With a Little Help From My Friends” (the triple-time Joe Cocker version, naturally). It was good, noisy, knockabout fun – and it was also the best tune of the night.