Jul 1, 2010

Old Friends at the Show

A publicity photo for the English folk-rock band, Mumford & Sons. Were they worth the road trip, the ten dollar admission, and the three hour wait? Absolutely! Ten bucks to see a show worth ten times that much was definitely worth it.

We rolled into Bloomington around six in the evening. Though I’d never been to Indiana University, the place brought back memories nonetheless. College was one of the best times in my life—it was when I think I finally began to enjoy life. Those years were marked by stimulating classes, interesting work on campus, pretty coeds to pursue (one of whom would become my wife), a new sense of independence, and most of all knowledge gained--of myself, of the world, and of God. Cruising the tree-lined streets of the IU campus brought all that flooding back,

We had supper at Mother Bear’s—a hole in the wall pizzeria that lived up to its reputation for serving some the nation’s best pizza. We ordered up a half olive, half cheese deep dish (made with the sauce on top), and it was fantastica—a pillowy, melt-in your mouth crust, rich sauce, and lots of melty mozzarella. It’s hard to do pizza wrong, but it’s equally difficult to do it exceptionally well, and the folks at Mother Bear’s pulled it off.

Our bellies full, we drove over to the Bluebird for the main event of the day—the Mumford and Sons concert. We waited in line outside the venue for about 45 minutes before the doors opened and we were ushered inside. We walked through a darkened warren of bar areas—low lights, wood counters, walls a scrapbook history of the bar’s past—to the performance area in the back. There was an upper level about the same height as the stage, a lower level a few steps below, and a back bar on the wall opposite the stage. We found a good spot on the railing of the upper level and settled in for the wait. And it as it turned out, we would be waiting for a good while. First there was an hour wait before the opening act—a humble man whose name I can’t recall in an overlarge rockstar t-shirt, sporting a mustache and a respectable talent. He played a handful of songs accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. Though we’d been waiting for almost two hours by the time he came onstage, the audience responded to his gracious self-deprecation with appreciation and patience. We later realized that he was Mumford and Son’s sound tech.

After his exit there was another wait of about half an hour and then what appeared to be an accountant wandered onstage and started fooling with a bright red electric guitar. He was soon joined by a Toby-McGuire look-a-like who took a seat at one of the drum kits on stage. There was a muted sigh from the audience as we realized that this unlikely duo was yet another opening act. Unfortunately, the French & Indian War (that’s the name of the two-man band) were unable to win back the audience’s regard. They were awful. The vocalist in his ordinary oxford shirt, jeans, sneakers, and conservative haircut had no rockstar pretentions, but no rock star talent either. After haranguing the sound guys for various adjustments, including more "reverb" (you know that effect you get in the shower that makes you sound better than you are), he strummed tunelessly on his guitar, intoned a-melodic noises into the microphone, occasionally inserting a dramatic yelp. Toby on the drums, tapped away in the background, looking bored and vaguely apologetic, occasionally laying down his sticks to take a swig or two from his beer bottle, as if to fortify himself. The pair slogged through half-dozen so-called songs, including an unrecognizable cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland." The audience grew surly, expressing their irritation with increasing boldness as the War wore on.

As is the case with all wars, we were all thankful when the French and Indian War finally came to an end. It was now almost 10 P.M. and yet another wait ensued. Around 10:30 P.M., at long last Mumford and Sons took the stage and proceeded to make the wait worth it.

This photo of the band is not from our show, though the venue and the passion for music that reflected in this photo were similar to what you see here. My camera was dead, so I got this picture off the web. I'll replace it with actual photos that Greg or J took if or when I can get them.

Mumford and Sons is a folk rock act out of England—four guys playing an upright bass, bass guitar, banjo, guitar, keyboards, and drums (obviously not all at once—all four band members seem to be able to switch instruments effortlessly, and did so throughout the show). Greg, in his trademark role as the explorer of the outer reaches of the musical universe, had discovered the band and mailed us each a copy of their album in advance of the concert. Their acoustic-y sound—hard strumming on the guitar and banjo, almost reminiscent of bluegrass--big harmonies, and earnest, emotional lyrics had already won me over, but the show made me a fan. They ripped through their set with buoyant energy and furious skill, playing virtually every song from their debut album and tossing in a couple new songs that instantly felt familiar. The tunes were perfect for singing-along and the audience obliged, belting out not just the choruses, but the verses as well. I got the distinct sense during the show that this was a band that was about to break out big. I think the band felt it too—throughout much of the show front man Marcus Mumford had this amazed, appreciative look on his face, as if he couldn’t quite believe the enthusiastic reception they were receiving. This was not an audience with a passing interest in a band who happened to playing. These were fans, as evidenced by the fact that they sang all the lyrics to the gentle, introspective, “After the Storm.” “I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone sing along to that one before,” Mumford remarked gracefully at the end.

“Best show I’ve ever seen for ten bucks,” Greg commented as we walked out of the Bluebird just before midnight. Indeed, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at any price.

Greg sent me the link on Facebook to this video for Mumford & Son's soaring, life-affirming "The Cave." This is one of my favorite songs by the band, though not their most popular one. Funny thing, this is music you'd feel safe bringing home to meet the parents--the lyrics are poetic, articulate, and clean, with the exception of their biggest single, "Little Lion Man", in which they drop the F-bomb in the chorus no less. It communicates well what they wanted to say--it's the story of a repentant man who declares (and I'm paraphrasing), "It was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the line, I really messed it up this time, didn't I, my dear."

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