Mumford & Sons: the boyband for grown-ups

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

Six years ago, Mumford & Sons took the world by storm with their own brand of tub-thumping not-very-alt folk. Heartfelt love songs and four presentable looking chaps, but with olde-world acoustic instruments that gave them an air of authenticity, made for a winning formula, marking the band out from the popstars of the day and providing for lively, stomp-along shows. The first album, Sigh No More, sold by the lorry load in the US and earned them a Mercury Prize nomination here in dear ol’ Blighty.

I saw them during that period at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. The age mix was broad, but there was one demographic that stood out: middle-class women, in their early twenties, with slightly bored boyfriends in tow. Mumfords were the band for nice, clean-cut girls. The band certainly had a distinctive image – collarless shirts and waistcoats – and stood on stage in a line, singing harmonies and bashing away on acoustic guitars, double bass and foot drum. It was entertaining enough, despite Martha and Julia nattering away in Received Pronunciation in the aisles between songs.

You may have seen those adverts on TV for ‘follow-on’ baby milk – formula feed for that tricksy period when mum is bored of breastfeeding but it’s a bit too soon to give the kid solid food. Well, that’s what Mumford & Sons are: a follow-on boyband for the girls who have outgrown One Direction and their ilk.

Fast forward to the present and Mumfords are playing to packed-out arenas. Last week, I headed down to their show at the O2 in London. But something has changed. No doubt tiring of the folk shtick they’ve been employing since they started in 2007, Mumfords have gone electric, though with none of the controversy of Bob Dylan’s big switch back in the Sixties. The songs are still obviously Mumfords songs, but these days they’re rocking out with the tunes from their latest album, Wilder Mind.

The Housemartins once released a greatest-hits-and-more collection called Now That’s What I Call Quite Good, but it would have been a more appropriate title for Wilder Mind. The new material seems custom-designed to fill that hole in the not-very-alt rock market vacated by Kings of Leon – though there’s no standout tune like ‘Sex on Fire’ here. There are also a few nods to the Strokes and fellow not-very-alt rockers Stereophonics in the guitar playing. But compared to the slightly grating folk songs – still getting a good airing in between the electric stuff here – it’s a step up.

Marcus Mumford is growing into the job of frontman, too. After a quiet start at the O2 show, he warmed to the task, joking about how playing the O2, in east London, is like ‘an away game’ from the band’s roots up west. Later, there was some full-on Bono antics, with Mumford running around the stalls before standing on a plinth, stage front, with his arms in the air to reach out to those in the circle. But Mumfords are proper musicians, too – Marcus switching between guitar and drums throughout the set.

This was a well-honed show, and it was clear that they’ve carried the nice girls with them – as well as picking up some new fans. (In my row, up in the nosebleed section of the circle, there were two guys portly enough to have been darts players in the Eighties.) What’s more, Mumfords still have a trump card in their back pockets – ‘Little Lion Man’, the single that catapulted them to fame and which brings the house down during every encore.

As the Jubilee Line swallowed us afterwards, Martha and Julia and their friends – now in their late twenties and no doubt working in the city or something – seemed happy. Even the once-bored boyfriends seemed chipper. In the end, it was a surprisingly good gig. Even if the music is largely forgettable, this boyband for grown-ups isn’t bowing out yet.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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