The World Cup wasn't mentioned once during the Mumford & Sons show at Off Broadway last night, but the long sold-out crowd thundered with approval for Brits whipping us at our own game. Bringing a polished version of rollicking bluegrass and heartbreaking harmonies, Mumford & Sons led a leather-shoe-stomping hoedown.
Ok, so the folk-inspired quartet draws from the well of traditional British music as well as Americana, but it's hard not to hear in them the soaring, shifting, banjo-thrashing, instrument-swapping energy of stateside acts like the Avett Brothers. Case in point: The lads, perhaps preparing for their upcoming gig at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, encored with a jaunty barroom cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel."
Lead singer/songwriter Marcus Mumford littered debut album Sigh No More with literary references, lifting full quotes from Shakespeare, the Bible and Bob Dylan, and lending his lyrics a universal quality. Maybe this collective (non-specific) appeal is why the audience seemed to know every word to every song, but in any case, it's a lot of cathartic fun to holler lines like, "I'll find strength in pain, and I will change my ways."
From set - and album - opener "Sigh No More," one could pick out fleeting Celtic tunes, references to '60s Brit folk and Fleet Foxes altar boy harmonies. But Mumford & Sons mainly channeled a windswept American landscape - and didn't skimp on the Steinbeck. On hushed "Timshel," Mumford's voice was like dynamite in the mine. Regular set-closer "Dust Bowl Dance" saw Mumford behind the drum kit and banjo/dobro player Winston Marshall wailing on whatever stringed instrument happened to be in his hands. The song acts like a tornado - smearing in slow rhythm across the horizon, then bursting into crashing frenzies of banjo, guitar, piano, cymbals, drums - touching down then lifting for a menacing moment of calm.
Timing is everything with Mumford & Sons; every song is a switchback road pulling the listener high and low, stalling then surging. On single "Little Lion Man" - a shambling confession with a thumping back end - the crowd was so riled by the frantic rushes of picking and piano that singing and cheering drowned out the silences so carefully placed on the record. These stop-starts are designed to pull the rug out from the listener, but this crowd was stomping the planks with too much glee to notice.