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Coachella 2011: Mumford & Sons & their many, many fans

April 17, 2011 | 10:35 pm


Marcus Mumford looked like he was going to pass out.

Surveying the tens of thousands of people gathered Saturday to watch his unlikely platinum-selling folk-revival band, rivulets of sweat ran down his temples and his breathing grew heavy. "This is by far the biggest gig we've ever played," he said, haltingly. "We know the significance of this festival, especially in America and California."  

Three years ago, I saw Mumford & Sons play around 8 p.m. to maybe 40 people at a Hotel Cafe showcase of London-based folk artists. Their harmonies were moving and their musicality superb, but, truth be told, there wasn't the spark of superstardom in the air.

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I'm happy to say I was dead wrong then, because the absolute palms-out rapture that greeted the quartet doesn't come by accident or even a marketing push. Mumford & Sons is a rare kind of band that completely sideswiped trend watchers to become one of the biggest new artists of the past year. And they did it while playing banjos and mandolins and singing about dying in thistle fields -- no small feat.

That sense of "What are we doing here?" seemed palpable on Mumford's face for most of the set. And, in all honestly, he wasn't wrong for feeling it. The band plays delicately-spun acoustic arrangements, with little more than a kick drum for barn-dance propulsion and yearning four-part harmonies. Is that enough to hold a crowd of 60,000?

Yes, but for totally opposite reasons. Mumford & Sons, while clearly indebted to old-time revivalist peers like the Incredible String Band, are also just as attuned to the big crescendos of alternative rock and the throat-shredding acoutsic-emo of bands like Bright Eyes (who, fittingly, played just before them). The result is a sturdy batch of songs that sound like something your great-grandparents would listen to, but which act like the drive time fare of KROQ (where the band's singles are in constant and often pleasantly jarring rotation). 

Take, for instance, crowd favorite "Little Lion Man," a self-lacerating lover's plea that doesn't even really get its sea legs until after the first chorus. But then, its double-time gallop and always-fun-to-sing profane chorus hits a rare (maybe unprecedented) sweet spot between the kind of kids who swear by pre-"Illinois" Sufjan Stevens and the dudes who put on "Under The Table & Dreaming" when taking that cute Pi Phi back to their dorm. In other words -- credibility plus accessibility plus a funny interplay between orthodoxy and adventurousness equals a huge out-of-left-field success story. 

With the added juice of a three-piece horn section, the songs took on a regal, almost religious quality. Mumford's sound draws from very old music, but plays by the rules of today's rock bands. And by the time they closed with "The Cave," the song they played at this year's Grammys just before backing Bob Dylan, every kind of voice was raised to sing a chorus about a lover choking to death. Unexpected, but totally natural in the end. Mumford shouldn't have worried so much.


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Mumford & Sons at the Troubadour

-- August Brown

Photo: Mumford & Sons performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times