Mumford & Sons
Last night's Mumford & Sons show seemed as special to the band as to the audience; it demonstrated the massive scale of their popularity, for starters.
See also: Our slideshow of the concert
"This is the most people that have ever come to see our band at one of our own shows," frontman Marcus Mumford said mid-set, looking dazzled as he gazed into the sea of fans assembled to see his band. With a capacity of 65,000, San Manuel is the the largest outdoor amphitheater in the United States. Last night -- a Sunday! -- tens of thousands filled the place, from the pit to the grass on the bowl's edge, and took in the English band's spirited roots rock revival.
There was plenty of tailgating and frisbee throwing in the grassy parking lot before the show as fans made Mumford's SoCal tour stop a day long event. The beauty of this band is that they're capable of making music big enough to engage a crowd the size of a mid-level city. Last night, we were all living in Mumfordtown, as the four man act enthusiastically tore through all the hits and then some from their two albums Sigh No More and Babel, the latter the winner of the 2013 Grammy Award for album of the year.
It was a family friendly affair, with kids and their parents singing and dancing along all over the place. The mini-festival, part of Mumford's current Summer Stampede, also featured opening sets by tour mates and fellow Brits the Mystery Jets and Michael Kiwanuka and L.A.'s own Eels. M&S took the stage right after sunset, around 8pm, opening with "Lover's Eyes" from Babel and wasting no time turning the affair into a spirited group singalong, kicked off by the band's gorgeous four part harmonies.
"There are so fucking many of you out there this evening!" Mumford observed early on. "Let's have a party! Put your dancing shoes on."
Along with a three piece string section and a three piece brass section, the group performed hits including "Little Lion Man" and "Lover of the Light." They didn't have to ask those in attendance to clap along or wave their hands in unison -- that happened spontaneously.
The English have a knack for taking traditional American music, obsessing over it, and then delivering it back to us in a way that inspires us in great numbers. What Zeppelin and the Stones did with the blues, Mumford does with bluegrass and folk.
But for all of these old-fashioned tendencies, the band's output last night was fresh and thrilling, each song a multi-phase epic, played with equal parts gentleness and bombast. The music was moody, often plodding along and then rising into a tight jam of guitar, upright bass, banjo, keyboard and kick drum, with Mumford's voice an equally powerful instrument.
"I don't know what to say to all these people," Mumford mused between songs. "God save the queen? There's a lot of white people here? We don't have a political message. We're just going to sing songs and have a good time."
It's genuine, accessible music; no smoke and mirrors or laptop trickery, just well-practiced musicianship and the pounding out of thematically grandiose songs. "It was not your fault but mine/and it was your heart on the line/I really fucked it up this time!" the crowd (including the kids) sang along during "Little Lion Man," all of us getting in on the catharsis of this apologetic admission.
Indeed there is comfort in the music of Mumford. The themes -- love, hearbreak, the soul, sin and redemption -- are universal. The group delivers them with equal parts rage and joy, and Mumford seems to really feel every lyric he's singing. These are basically contemporary hymns, songs of error and repentance. If you want to call it spiritual music, then last night San Manuel was essentially a megachurch, with more beer.
Admittedly, several of Mumford's songs sound darn similar, but the ones that stand out --"White Blank Page" "I Will Wait" "Awake My Soul" stand quite tall and proud. And while one may have longed for a bit more improvisational jamming, the crowd was united in wanting more after the band ended the set with the moody, impassioned "Dust Bowl Dance." The entire section of the audience sitting in the seats took to banging on the plastic chairs with their hands and fists, sending up a cacaphony of noise to rival the band's.
For their encore, Mumford & Sons chose to cover the man who basically invented the mega-show. But they didn't go loud. Instead, they asked for a favor. "We're going to do something and it's going to be the quietest fucking thing ever," Mumford said, "so we need you all to be as quiet as you can."
With that, a hush went over the crowd and the place was silent -- truly. The four men stood around one mic stand and sang a delicately harmonized rendition of Bruce Springsteen's most gentle seduction ballad, "I'm on Fire." We shushed each other quiet and sang along on the chorus. It was enough to make a sentimental concert reviewer cry.
For the final song Mumford & Sons went big with "The Cave" the urgent, soaringly hopeful epic that encapsulates everything great about this band. The group raged on their instruments, putting everything they had left into the lush banjo and brass jam. The crowd sang along -- "I'll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways/ I'll know my name as it's called again" -- while fist pumping and dancing, the tens of thousands who had road tripped to the inland empire on a school night putting forth as much effort as the group they had come to see.
Overheard in the crowd: "I can't hold it any longer. I have to pee in that bush."
Personal bias: No one had a better time than the 12 year old I brought with me.
Random notebook dump: The amphitheater should warn people that the sprinklers in the park go on at night. I would not have left all of my car windows and sun roof open, had I known that.
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