Mumford & Sons review – ambitious tour sets sail on a sea of mediocrity

SSE Hydro, Glasgow
On a stage that resembles a futuristic pirate ship, the folk-rockers try to be epic and intimate – but their new material sends them adrift

U2 brought us the claw, then Arcade Fire the boxing ring. How to characterise Mumford & Sons’ contribution to in-the-round stage architecture? A long rectangular structure with stepped platforms at its extremities and a complex dynamic lighting rig suspended from the ceiling that unfurls like mechanical sails, one could fancifully compare their staging to a futuristic pirate ship. A less generous observer might remark on its resemblance to one of those ugly barges used to cart rubbish. It’s a bizarre construction, spectacular in its blandness.

From the deck of this planet-bound vessel, Marcus Mumford and his crew of notional sons launch what they call “by far the most ambitious show we’ve put together yet” in support of their new album, Delta. It’s so ambitious it has forced the London folk-rock quartet to reschedule several UK dates to give them time to iron out “unforeseen technical and logistical challenges”. This is a surprising planning failure from such a successful band and, to be fair, Mumford does tonight acknowledge that it has left some fans feeling “really pissed off”. A live experience designed to bring the band closer to their public than the average enormodome concert hasn’t had the cosiest of starts.

Mumford & Sons’s stage set at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow.
Bizarre construction … Mumford & Sons’s stage set at the SSE Hydro, Glasgow. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

Anyone hoping for high-wire banjoing or tweed breeches getting shot from cannons should lower their expectations. It’s the same old Mumfords, only with more freedom to roam. Singing and stamping away from several microphone and kick-drum stations around the stage, Mumford remains a frontman with a gift and enthusiasm for the Chris Martin-esque rousing grand gesture, whether thumping his barrel chest while driving his voice to a reedy rasp during Little Lion Man, or sparking a thousand-smartphone-camera-flash salute at the outset of Believe. Their set features material from that phase a few years back when, in their cosplay Wurzels pomp, Mumford & Sons drove to the unlikely brink of becoming the biggest band in the world; from Babel to The Cave and Roll Away Your Stone they’ve got enough rustic rockets in their pockets to incite a mass hoedown at any moment.

But such flashes of excitement drift further apart in a set encumbered by newer material that is much less abundant in energy or certain of purpose. Delta has found scant favour with critics – and little wonder, considering how truly soporific the likes of The Wild and Picture You prove: windy yet featureless sonic vistas, each mistakenly conflating moody vibes and electronics with gravitas.

Polite pyrotechnics pop off as Winston Marshall’s guitar screeches during the pseudo Nine Inch Nails industrial-rock clang of Darkness Visible. But if there’s one passage that lives up to “ambitious” billing then it’s two acoustic songs, Timshel and Sister, sung in fraternal close harmony by the four Mumfords huddled around one microphone, finally achieving the show’s stated purpose of shrinking the arena down to what feels like pub back-room proportions. I Will Wait subsequently shakes the bleachers with an elephantine outbreak of foot stomping. But the crowd is already melting away before Delta’s overlong title track has taken its precious time wrapping up in a billowing gale of crashing cymbals and empty bellowing. The good ship Mumford floats on, mighty, yet increasingly adrift on a sea of mediocrity.

• At Genting Arena, Birmingham, 23 November. Then touring UK until 1 December.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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