When Mumford & Sons come to TD Garden on Tuesday, they arrive not just with the distinction of playing a sold-out show. They’ve accomplished something far grander.
“Mumford & Sons went on sale at 10 a.m. and sold out in six minutes,” says Tricia McCorkle, the arena’s director of public relations. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a folk act sell out the TD Garden, unless you consider James Taylor and Carole King a folk act. Pretty incredible.”
Indeed. It has been a incredible trajectory for the English quartet, whose rise was slow and steady (at least in this country) and led the way for a new crop of bands that play folk music with a decidedly raucous bent.
Not to dismiss their own merits, but let’s call them Mumford’s children: the Lumineers, the Head and the Heart, and Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men . All have become famous to varying degrees in the wake of Mumford’s sleeper success with “Sigh No More,” its debut released in the US in 2010.
The Mumfords also opened the door for Americana’s latest hyped band, the Lone Bellow, a country-leaning trio from Brooklyn being touted as the next Civil Wars, the genteel folk duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White, who are now on hiatus. (The Lone Bellow, the first act to be announced on this summer’s lineup for the Newport Folk Festival, plays the Paradise Rock Club on Feb. 14.)
Mumford’s vast influence has seeped into the mainstream, and it’s about to hit its apex. At the 55th Grammy Awards, on
Feb. 10, Mumford & Sons’ sophomore release, “Babel,” is up for album of the year, among a handful of other nominations. And the Lumineers, who are also in town next week (at the House of Blues on Monday), are nominated for best new artist and best Americana album, going up against “Babel.”
The last time American roots music had such a prominent profile was around 2000, when the soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” took the Grammy for best album and reignited interest in old Appalachian tunes. Gillian Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, became darlings of sepia-toned folk, and Alison Krauss later hit a critical and commercial high with her Grammy-winning album with Robert Plant, 2007’s “Raising Sand.”
Those artists didn’t galvanize audiences the way Mumford & Sons have, though. Bolstered by hits like “Little Lion Man” — you know, the one where frontman Marcus Mumford says, “I really [expletive] it up this time” — they were stars in the UK when they came stateside.
Even though we already had bands that did roots rock well, particularly the Avett Brothers, the buzz was deafening. I can’t remember the last time a band sold out its first Boston-area headlining show at the Middle East Downstairs (capacity: 575) and then graduated to the TD Garden (upwards of 15,000 seats) nearly three years later.
It’s heartening to realize it’s not just Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears who can achieve that. But the nagging question I’ve had with Mumford & Sons, ever since seeing them at the Middle East Downstairs in 2010, has remained the same:
Is that all there is?
I see the appeal. Even when conveying hard truths – about lost love, self-doubt, regrets – there’s communal joy in their songs. They specialize in a specific hybrid of roots music. The instrumentation may be traditional (banjo, mandolin, guitar, accordion), but the mood of the music is modern and euphoric, as if salvation were simply one singalong away. You can hear your own voice in their songs.
They’re all about the power of dynamics. On “Babel,” a formula emerges immediately: soft sentiments meant for a coffeehouse couched in exuberant melodies tailor-made for a stadium. It works well enough, until it suddenly feels workmanlike and rote. You know exactly what Mumford & Sons will deliver; either you’re on board or you’re not. Nuance is secondary to consistency with these guys.
In my mind, they’re not unlike the Kingston Trio, the wildly popular band that was the cash cow of the 1960s folk revival but wasn’t nearly as arresting as its lesser-known counterparts.
They may be the leaders of a new movement, but Mumford & Sons are also the most overrated and monochromatic act in a scene blossoming with bands bending Americana’s boundaries. From Trampled by Turtles’ mash-up of bluegrass and metal to Mountain Man’s resurrection of sumptuous harmony singing to Dawes’s redux of blue-eyed California country-soul, there’s plenty to be excited about.
Lord Huron, from Los Angeles by way of Michigan, makes watercolor indie folk shot wide open with world-music influences. Angel Olsen, a singer-songwriter from Chicago, is a solo artist whose depth and range conjure the intensity of a full band. From Sweden, First Aid Kit, the sister act of Johanna and Klara Söderberg, sing contemporary folk songs full of sun-kissed nostalgia. If they were going to San Francisco, they would definitely wear flowers in their hair.
It’s interesting to note that Mumford’s rise has coincided with the rejuvenated spirit of the Newport Folk Festival. Under the curatorial eye of producer Jay Sweet, the venerable event has had record ticket sales the past few years, selling out three weeks in advance in 2011 and nearly five the next year.
Sweet, who has openly lobbied for Mumford & Sons to play Newport, but to no avail, sees the band as emblematic of a new era of roots music. And that comes with a risk.
“They have the spotlight right now,” Sweet says. “What they’ve done to raise everyone’s profile is remarkable, but my fear is that there will be a backlash. People start to look at other bands like that and think they all sound the same. The backlash can be very fast and very furious.”