Jack Garratt; Mumford & Sons – review

O2 Arena, London
This year’s next big thing has shades of Sheeran while the Mumfords evolve beyond homespun

“My pad has broken!” exclaims Jack Garratt with a frustrated whack of a drumstick, moments into his set. One malfunctioning bit of gear might be lost in the din made by most emerging outfits. But Garratt has nowhere to hide.

The 24-year-old from Buckinghamshire, tipped to be the next big thing since roughly this time last year, is a one-man band, opening up tonight for a 14-legged one. He may have come up through the BBC’s Introducing strand before being snapped up by Island, but there’s something of Britain’s Got Talent to Garratt as well.

He triggers tricksy digital beats with both limbs on the right of his body, playing keys with his left hand. Some of the time he has an electric guitar strapped on too. From his mouth comes an R&B falsetto, alternating with a gutsy holler or a croon. Garratt is 2016’s Brits critics’ choice award winner. Like this year’s incumbent, James Bay, he wears a signature hat – a trucker cap, this time, paired with a bushy beard. If hats fit – he must have reasoned – wear ’em: Garratt’s Brits vote was seconded by the BBC Sound of 2016 shortlist; he has already won an artist of the year gong from BBC Music’s Introducing series.

You can see why people muttered about Garratt being the next Ed Sheeran. Not only is he a one-man band, selling out non-tiny gigs before he’s even released a debut album (due in February); Garratt has chutzpah. “Don’t worry about it, Jack,” he proclaims, as though to himself, eyeing the offending drum pad, “it’s only the O2.” He treats the half-full arena like it’s a much smaller gig, chatting to the front rows, unfazed.

The pad is soon replaced, and we’re into Water: muffled underwater beats, a guitar-shop guitar lick, sub-bass wub-wubs, and Garratt’s home counties bluesman bellow. Over-egged, but not without impact, Garratt’s sound truly is the sound of now: a solo artist – trend of the decade – playing electro-acoustic music that sounds a little like a lot of other things you might already like. Like Sheeran, he is a balladeer at heart, the kind of guy who used to make do with an acoustic guitar. But genres are so 20th century. So just as Sheeran collaborated with grime MCs on his way up and readily deploys beats, Garratt (rightly) sees no disconnect between low tech and high, urban music and rural. He cites LA jazz and hip-hop luminary Flying Lotus as an inspiration, as well as Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Jack White’s Blunderbuss, and draws heavily on R&B textures on songs like recent single Breathe Life or Weathered from earlier this year. Ellie Goulding recently covered the latter, which can’t have hurt Garratt’s profile either.

The problem with covers by breathy pop stars, though, is that they lay bare the quite simple tune at the heart of the radical, post-dubstep, folk&B soundscape you are magicking up with a flourish. Hilariously, Garratt actually does that himself tonight, on his balladeer’s cover of Disclosure’s Latch – all Sam Smith croon and no digital finery. Garratt has an enviable skillset, but he remains a perfectly commercial singer-songwriter at heart, which is what all these awards – ostensibly for excitement and novelty – are really about. Or, as Marcus Mumford puts it fondly, “he’s the next Britney Spears!”

‘Transformation’: Marcus Mumford with Mumford & Sons at the O2 last week.
‘Transformation’: Marcus Mumford with Mumford & Sons at the O2 last week. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Mumford & Sons began by defining themselves against the kind of rock played in arenas. They played folk instruments, fast and earnestly, augmented by a kick-drum stomp; they tried to keep things human-sized, homespun and brown, creating travelling roadshows of their own on their Gentlemen of the Road tours.

Ironically, M&S found themselves accused of being terminally middle-class by middle-class people who probably quite liked most other homespun, human-sized, brown things – artisanal sourdough bread sold by the baker from a wooden tabletop, say.

Now, Wimbledon’s most massive have sold out two nights in what is, ostensibly a different kind of tent, plugging a recent album, Wilder Mind, that does away with the banjo-core that made their name. It’s a difficult act to pull off, merging the new direction – all metronomic 80s rock drumming, subtle electronics and strung-out intensity – with the crescendo-ing songs from Sigh No More and Babel. Rather than set the upright bass of Ted Dwane symbolically on fire, Mumford & Sons ping-pong between the two approaches, opening up with the cumulative intensity of Snake Eyes from the new album, swiftly followed by ye olde crowd-pleaser, I Will Wait. Later they follow up Thistle & Weeds (ye olde) for Tompkins Square Park (one of the highlights of Wilder Mind). Somehow it works, transforming them from hoedown merchants into a sleek and dynamic outfit with more convincing atmospheres, and far better lyrics, than their new peers, Coldplay or Kings of Leon.

It feels like Little Lion Man will always be the M&S go-to encore. But after they play it, and fans start to leave, some double back to hear the song after – Wilder Mind’s The Wolf. Mumford & Sons seem to be having their cake – now studded with bits of Bruce Springsteen, and the War On Drugs – and eating it.

Star ratings (out of five)
Jack Garratt **
Mumford & Sons ***


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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