Here’s an overlooked aspect of Mumford & Sons’ polarizing decision to go rock on their third album: it was a huge financial risk. The London folkies raked in $9.4 million from touring alone in 2013, when they hit the road to support 2012’s Grammy-winning Babel. So no matter what people think of Wilder Mind, consider Mumford & Sons’ decision to alter the sound that made them a live draw and radio juggernaut as gutsy.
But after a month of late-night appearances and secret, ramshackle gigs, Mumford truly debuted its revamped live show Saturday night at The Heath, a 200-person occupancy venue in Manhattan’s McKittrick Hotel. (SiriusXM’s The Spectrum sponsored and broadcast the gig in real-time, giving the band a far larger audience than the one that filled The Heath’s rustic, taxidermy-lined walls.) With nary a suspender in sight – charismatic frontman Marcus Mumford dressed in all black – the group trotted out a two-hour set that spanned Mumford’s vast catalog of songs and proved the state of their performance is strong. Generic rock record or not, Mumford & Sons is back.
“If they’re serious about this direction, they’ll need to diversify their sound,” Kyle Anderson wrote in our EW review of Wilder Mind. “Maybe add a banjo?” To the crowd’s relief, diversification wasn’t an issue Saturday night. After igniting the set with “Believe” and “Ditmas,” two of Wilder’s most visceral tracks, the band promptly pivoted, donning their folk equipment for a mesmerizing rendition of “The Cave.” The song kicked off an 11-track stretch that included only four of their fresh, rock-oriented tunes. Mumford & Sons stripped the Wilder tracks of their sterile studio sheen on stage, uniformly improving them. And by nestling their electric explorations between Babel highlights like “Lovers’ Eyes” and “I Will Wait,” Mumford avoided monotony and actually improved the viability of both sets of songs.
Although Mumford injected “Just Smoke” with proto-Stones lilt and main set closer “The Wolf” with a swagger reminiscent of U2, those cuts bookended the concert’s dullest stretch – a dirge-like procession of disposable tracks new (“Hot Gates”) and old (“After the Storm”). They’re consummate showmen and prodigious instrumentalists, but Mumford & Sons still need to play to their strength, which is banging on instruments—whether they’re Fender Telecasters or tarnished banjos—in fits of emotional climax. Even in a tiny venue like The Heath, dialing back didn’t suit the band, and made the (still respectable) two-hour set feel excessive.
That inspires questions about Mumford’s justly-lauded live act as they prepare to embark on a massive tour supporting Wilder Mind. In multiple stabs at humility (no one really bought it when Marcus Mumford commented, “We never meant for all this shit to happen, it was a bit of an accident.”), the Mumford dudes encouraged fans to turn out for their “stopovers,” a series of mini-festivals where the band will co-headline with artists including Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, Foo Fighters and the Flaming Lips.
The jury’s still out when it comes to how fans will accept the group’s curious musical choices—including their decision to close their encore with Wilder Mind deep cut “Only Love,” rather than the bona-fide classic “Little Lion Man.” Mumford & Sons sequenced their greatest hit as the penultimate song, and the audience seemed genuinely surprised (even a little taken back) when the band unwittingly discarded the profound moment. Missteps like that prove Mumford & Sons still has room to grow – but their willingness to continue giving fans the folk anthems they first fell in love with is promising nonetheless.
Lover of the Light
Thistle & Weeds
Awake My Soul
Tompkins Square Park
Ghosts That We Knew
I Will Wait
After the Storm
White Blank Page
Little Lion Man