This could be the year of stomping bluegrass, blazing banjo and pithy vocal harmonies.
Unlikely though it may sound, the British invasion of the U.S. is being led by the musicians in Mumford & Sons. The band is preparing to tour after being nominated for six Grammy awards. “Babel,” which is up for album of the year, sold more than 600,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week alone.
Judging by the shows in the U.K., listeners can expect a gentlemanly riot of folky songs topped off with a barnstorming Beatles cover.
For all this, the Mumfords have attracted some critical derision. Their olde-Englishe affectations, the vintage rustic clothing, the mock village-fete staging, even the whimsy of the band name, are the very opposite of cool.
Purloining folk music’s prettier aspects, and dabbling in the genre’s traditions of gritty social narrative -- when one comes from a manifestly comfortable background -- is decried by many. Marrying a Hollywood actress (in fact Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan were childhood friends) is passe.
Yet from the opening acoustic strums of “Babel,” it’s impossible not to get swept up by the vivacity. Witnessing the four members stand in a line at the front of the stage, the reasons for the success becomes clear.
Despite fielding only piano, acoustic guitar, banjo and bass, with a solitary kick-drum at Marcus Mumford’s feet to provide a beat, Mumford & Sons effortlessly rock even London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena.
“I Will Wait” provides an early sing-along. ‘Country’ Winston Marshall attempts Metallica-style fireworks with his plucky little banjo. Mumford’s voice adds an appealing gruffness to “Below My Feet.”
Other instruments, including strings, brass and elements from the Los Angeles band Dawes come and go, adding variety. The writing is indebted to the U2 school of stadium entertainment. Songs swell boisterously and contract into intimacy. “Little Lion Man” has emotional grit and melodic roar.
Much has been made of Mumford’s Christianity (his parents are leaders of an evangelical church). His lyrics go beyond the mere use of biblical images. As explorations of faith, alongside lust and love, his songs ring emotionally true.
There are literary references too. “Dust Bowl Dance” is inspired by Steinbeck. The most overtly traditional of the songs, and dealing with events outside the band’s direct experience, it veers into pastiche.
They use it to rock out, even allowing a little electric guitar distortion among the enthusiasm. A microphone stand is knocked flying. Neil Young’s gnarly crown remains untouched.
“The Cave” is more successful, the audience whooping along to its heady Platonic hoedown. A cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” all celebration and free of sentimentality, brings the show to a roof-raising close.
The naysayers might be hip. It is Mumford & Sons that is having the fun.
The Mumford tour starts on Feb. 5 in Boston, moving to the Barclays Center in New York the following day. In March the band returns to Europe for shows in Poland, Austria, Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Information: http://www.mumfordandsons.com
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)