RALEIGH -- For the past two decades, the mainstream has been awaiting the breakthrough act that would take twangy Americana folk-rock to the masses. Finally we have that band, and wouldn't you know they're British.
That would be Mumford & Sons, who played for an adoring and soldout throng Wednesday night at the Downtown Raleigh Amphitheater. The London quartet's "Sigh No More" album has been a top-10 fixture ever since they played the Grammy Awards back in February. And at first glance, it's hard to fathom why them and not, say, Concord's similarly styled Avett Brothers.
But as their live show demonstrated, Mumford & Sons' British-ness might be their best attribute. Not unlike the Beatles channeling Little Richard back to America, they bring an outlook and sensibility that's just different enough to blow up huge over here.
Even though their instrumentation includes banjo, upright bass, mandolin and a lot more acoustic than electric guitar, Mumford & Sons write epic songs for large settings. If Chris Martin had adapted a freak-folk Avett Brothers template instead of Radiohead and U2, you can imagine Coldplay turning out this way.
Wednesday was positively sweltering, but it was worth braving the evening heat to see opener The Low Anthem. The group's records have a delicate atmosphere that doesn't seem like it would translate live, but they were fantastic. All four members showed impressive range, changing instruments almost every song. Along with standard guitars, bass and drums, various tunes featured clarinet, fiddle, saw, harmonium, a strange disc-and-bow contraption I couldn't identify and even cell-phone feedback on the last song. At just the right instant, a train horn chimed in from the Amtrak station nearby -- a lovely moment of synchronicity.
The heat had relented a bit by the time the headliners came out, although frontman Marcus Mumford appeared to be wilting. "We're very much like our fathers, we don't do shorts," he said. "We're British!"
Mumford's quavering yowl is similar to a less-annoying Dave Matthews, and he has a knack for the perfect dramatic build-up. "Roll Away Your Stone" started with a Baroque guitar figure before exploding into an anthemic sing-along. And when Mumford got behind the drums on a new song called "Lover of the Light," he drove the rhythm with a martial stomp.
Mumford & Sons have just one album out, so a fair quantity of the 15-song set consisted of new songs ranging from so-so ("Broken Crown") to pretty amazing ("Lover's Eyes," announced as the newest song of all). But of course, the radio hits went over best of all, particularly "Little Lion Man" and "Winter Winds." The latter song came during the encore, with Avett Brothers cellist Joe Kwon sitting in.
They saved their biggest hit of all for last, and the crowd erupted at the first note of "The Cave" from Mumford's acoustic guitar. And yeah, you could say withholding their signature hit until the end was kind of cheesy. Nevertheless, the look on Mumford's face as he took in the applause was pure joy. Nice to see a band breaking through, and having the sense to enjoy their moment.
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