Mumford and Sons review – reinvented band can't keep those ol' banjos down

Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield
The waistcoats may have been abandoned in favour of leather jackets, widescreen rock and lasers, but pandemonium erupts for every stomping oldie

“Y’awright Sheffield,” yells Marcus Mumford, placing a boot upon a monitor and wearing a T-shirt that helpfully displays his tattoos. It’s the sort of introduction one might expect from Guns N’ Roses, not Mumford, but maybe that’s the point. The ubiquitous rustic folkies have undergone a curious metamorphosis and turned into a rock band, complete with guitars, two drum kits, lasers and a leather jacket.

It’s been a long, strange trip from pubs to arenas and stadiums – next year’s Hyde Park gig will be their biggest non-festival outing in the UK. When M&S first took off in 2009, their rustic folk was hardly new, but Mumford’s stomping boot and choruses any audience could bellow led to Transatlantic No 1s and turned their gigs into giant barn dances.

This, of course, is many people’s idea of hell, and a vocal army of Mumford refuseniks pointed out the inauthentic silliness of independently educated posh boys in brogues and waistcoats singing about struggles and howling winds in almost every song (and who got “lost” in so many that Mumford was clearly in need of a good compass).

After being mocked by everyone from Mark E Smith to Viz, the band eventually tired of themselves, with band member Winston Marshall declaring: “I fucking hate the banjo.”

Thus, a three-year break led to the recent album Wilder Mind (yet another chart-topper) and the unlikely switch to epic, widescreen rock, reminiscent of U2 and Coldplay.

Plangent guitars echo around Sheffield arena as motorik opener Snake Eyes bears the audible imprint of acclaimed US band the War on Drugs and finds Mumford singing in a moody drawl that suggests he grew up in a dusty southern state, not Wimbledon. As early as the second number, though, that ol’ banjo is back, as Babel brings back ye olde hurricane footstomp. Thereafter, the gig motors along in familiar steamroller fashion, although with one or two bumps as the band alternate between black-denimed Mumford 2.0 and an instant hoedown.

It’s going to be even less straightforward, longer term, toughing it out in the big, indie rock arena already crowded by Snow Patrol and Kings of Leon, but the best new songs give them a chance. Monster simmers with something approximating rage, and believable betrayal anthem Tompkins Square Park is quietly, smoulderingly fabulous.

However, where such songs are given occasional arm-swaying respect, scenes of absolute, air-punching joy and pandemonium erupt with every stomping oldie, from I Will Wait to The Cave.

Still, every small boy dreams of pulling on an electric, not acoustic, guitar and perhaps every arena performer will eventually unleash their inner Bono. Mumford survives a faux pas when he says how much he loves it in “the far north” (this is South Yorkshire, mate, not the Arctic) but the chunky singer thrills the crowd when he plays drums under fireworks, sings amid the throng and professes undying love for Yorkshire pudding.

A respectful version of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire perhaps suggests where they’d like to go and provides a handy illustration of the bar they’ll need to reach to get there. It’s a curious and, at times, difficult metamorphosis, but fans will be relieved that M&S MK2 haven’t entirely left their old selves in the same bin as the waistcoats.

• At Genting Arena, Birmingham, 30 November. Box office: 0844 338 8222. Then touring. Details


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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