Arena gigs can be less than wholly satisfactory events, with large sections of the crowd getting a poor view from the oxygen-starved heights of the bowl and scant interaction between performers and audience. So the announcement by Mumford & Sons that their new stage design would allow them to play in the round, bringing all sections of the crowd into proximity with the band was warmly welcomed by many concertgoers.
Unfortunately, they haven’t had much luck so far, and technical and logistical challenges have forced the cancellation of several shows but their First Direct Arena gig in Leeds on Saturday, December 1st escaped the chop, partly one suspects because the semi-circular auditorium could never have accommodated playing in the round anyway.
The new stage was there, filling the width of the arena, with raised ends that can be reached by steps, giving the whole apparatus the appearance of a dismasted galleon with poops fore and aft. Above the deck floated huge banks of lights which moved, tilted and pivoted to create some stunning effects, particularly when they came in low to create a surprisingly intimate tented effect, which suited the music very nicely.
With their most recent album, Delta, riding high in the charts, the Mumfords are on a roll, the Arena was packed, and the challenge for the band was to marry the diverse styles from their expanding catalogue into a coherent whole. That they did so is a tribute to their onstage charisma and that they were clearly having a great time. There was a second drummer tucked away in a cavern stage right and various other musicians, including horns, keys and violins, who filled out the sound without distracting from the well-loved Mumford set up, but it wasn’t too radical a development, and the fans got exactly what they came for – a high energy hootenanny for a digital age.
The Mumfords are pretty much a Marmite band (not sure what that is in American – it means a band that divides opinion strongly), but you’d have needed a heart of stone not to respond to the sheer joyful exuberance of their performance, and although there was only the four of them on a wide stage, and they remained pretty static throughout (except during “Ditmas”, when Marcus Mumford went for a wander through the crowd with hapless security trailing in his wake), they delivered a show that was bursting with energy and goodwill.
Almost inevitably it was the old favourites like “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” that draw the biggest cheers, but the songs from the new album got a warm welcome from a crowd who spent most of the night up on their feet and dancing. Marcus Mumford made himself popular with his praise for Leeds and his memories of the town where he first saw cocaine. By the end of the night he had probably been made an honorary son of Leeds.
The banjo was back, but it didn’t dominate the arrangements and Winston Marshall frequently switched to the guitar. For my money it was the material from Wilder Mind (QRO review) that came across best, with “Tompkins Square Park” being the highlight of the night, but most of the crowd seemed to prefer the more up tempo stuff. Maryland based folk pop singer & opener Maggie Rogers (QRO photos) joined the band for an invigorating version of “Beloved”, and the evening ended with foot-stomping performances of “I Will Wait” and “Delta”, which had everybody on their feet and making the arena rattle before we all headed out into the cold.