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Live review: Mumford & Sons at the Troubadour

February 10, 2010 |  3:23 pm

MumfordMumford & Sons is a fine example of young English musicians' recent interest in that country's old folk. But at Tuesday night’s sold-out set at the Troubadour, singer Marcus Mumford revealed a dark secret about his past. He was actually born in Anaheim.

It makes a certain sense that Mumford’s frontman would hail from a town whose most famous business is devoted to dazzling displays of artifice and nostalgia. Mumford’s intricate and immaculate pub-folk comes from four musicians preternaturally talented at old ideas about acoustic arrangements and lyrical storytelling. But they use so many au courant ways to get there – swooning four-part harmonies, instrument-swapping, occasional punkish breakdowns – that their sold-out Troubadour set felt like a star-making turn.

The band’s name is a bit deceiving on that front. Mumford is the songwriting force and the lead voice of the band, but they’re most powerful when he’s not clearly up front. On “Little Lion Man,” the breakout single from their debut, “Sigh No More,” the song rides an urgent kick drum and a ferocious little tangle of banjo and guitar picking before stacks of harmonies kick in for the exhilarating chorus. Live, those harmonies aren’t just a really impressive onstage parlor trick – they’re the real face of the band.

But for all the musicians' apparent virtuosity, it’s the songs that could well make them a viable pop act (well, in the corners of the world where having a banjo player named “Country Winston” doesn’t disqualify you from that). Even such warm-up tosses as album opener “Sigh No More”  have an instant melodicism that makes you wonder whether  you’ve heard these songs before – they’re so readily re-playable that they almost feel like standards.

The boozy sway of “Dust Bowl Dance” and the seethe of “The Cave” have a visceral quality that so many cuddly young folk-revivalists retreat from, even if Mumford occasionally hunkers down in self-consciously "folky" turns of phrase on tunes like "Sister." A few new tunes, including one where Mumford takes over on the drum kit, already show ambitions toward a more expansive sonic palette, with big washes of keys and doom-laden guitar that only make those voices sound more harrowing.

It’s always a welcome moment when a band that can really, truly play gets a bit of a pop-star wind at their back. For Mumford, though, those elements are inextricable. They’ve taken their considerable skills and made one heck of a show out of them.

-- August Brown

Photo courtesy Big Hassle Media