Mumford & Sons control crowd immaculately at the Greek

Mumford and Sons

Mumford & Sons, the folk-rock force that has influenced contemporary pop music more than any other group in a decade, made an interesting choice by performing at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley May 29-31. Tickets sold out instantly for all three dates when they went on sale, proving the group could have filled Oracle Arena twice over most likely (the band hooked up fans by offering pre-sale ticketing that you could purchase at your own pace by signing up at their website). As always, the outdoor theatre on the UC Berkeley campus proved to be a beautiful setting, a much more intimate and sonically special space for live music than a vast arena. Heart-on-sleeve leader Marcus Mumford even thanked the faithful for snapping up tickets so quickly Friday night, and he did seem humble – something he has down to a veritable science.

With their second tour and massive mainstream success, the foursome now tours with an extensive group of support – at times there were 11 performers on stage, almost exclusively string-based. The other obvious change in Mumford & Sons’ live performance is the gaudy amount of stage aesthetics they are now surrounded by – massive LED panels, epic spotlights, never-ending fog machines – something that could contradict their throwback sound. What a challenge it is for a folk/americana/country group to integrate contemporary visual effects into a live show, and it was successful overall because they didn’t overdo it. They took a minimalist approach to a setup that would have worked for a Bassnectar show. During “Lover of the Light”, at the peak point when Marcus screams the name of the song, it seemed logical for a blinding white light to overtake the audience, but that must have been too didactic since they kept the visuals mellow at that moment. Those present were slightly subdued at times for a Friday night crowd, but that’s because they were at the whim the headliners, following the musical cues with trained obedience.

Mumford and Sons

The Mumford & Sons crowd are the type of folks that don’t go to very many shows, something that became clear as a chatty buzz overtook Michael Kiwanuka’s opening performance. A couple inebriated strangers gave me a beer to apologize for taking the space directly in front of me. I appreciated it since the beer lines were epic, but was it their first concert? While collective disrespect was handed out to Kiwanuka, which included a bare spattering of claps after his final song, Mumford fans were immersed in the main act. The quiet pauses in the songs brought solumn respect from the crowd, yet the age-diverse but very white crowd erupted in celebration during radio anthems like “Little Lion Man”, and the expected sing-alongs brought a surprisingly blended audience harmony.

The hits were spread out, but the show didn’t really take off until the last third of the evening. The four song run of “Holland Road”, “Awake My Soul”, “I Will Wait”, and “Dust Bowl Dance” to end the set was the first time I joined the rest of the Greek theater entranced by the emotional up-and-downs that is the center point of the Mumford ethos. The most memorable part of the evening came at the encore, when Marcus told the audience that the next song will only work if everyone is absolutely silent. Of course, someone within the bowl of the theatre screamed as loud as possible. Marcus said, “now don’t do that. That’s our friend Tom. We put him there to show you what not to do.” Then they jumped into a stripped down version of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” gathered around one antiquated microphone for an acoustic take on the classic, and a deafening silence that lasted the entire song elevated it, creating a memorable moment. After the song, Marcus said, “that’s the quietest it’s ever been for that song…so we’re gonna do another one.” That was perfect timing for the obligatory yelling of “Freebird!”, which actually happened. Regardless of the noob-tastic Cliché spouted, the band played “Not With Haste” unplugged as well, and at the song’s conclusion Marcus smacked the microphone with triumphant gusto. He then said, “We play lots of shows, and we’ll never ever forget that.”

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