3:30 a.m – that’s what time the first person got in line Tuesday morning for a chance to get right up against the stage (well, barrier) to see Mumford & Sons at Asheville’s Civic Center. By the time the doors opened almost 16 hours later, that line stretched around the entire city block.
So who the heck is Mumford, and why are he and his sons selling out a 7,600-capacity venue on a Tuesday night in downtown Asheville?
Apparently London has a folk music scene too, and these guys rose to the very tip-top of it with just one album, 2009’s Sigh No More. In fact, Mumford & Sons vocalist/keyboardist/accordionist/drumer Ben Lovett (not to be confused with Asheville’s Ben Lovett of the band Lovett) has his own label, Indie Communion Records based in London, and he’s recorded two EPs for Matthew and the Atlas, an up-and-coming five-piece band from Aldershot, U.K. (More on that band in a minute.) The release and three singles off of Sigh No More have dominated charts across Europe, the United States and Australia and every concert and festival Mumford & Sons has played this year has been a sellout. If you got to see them Tuesday night, you were some of the lucky ones.
“We recognize some of you from The Avett Brothers’ New Year’s Eve show,” Mat Davidson of openers The Low Anthem said two songs into their set (hey… that’s my line!). Unfortunately for the Low Anthem, the crowd wasn’t nearly as receptive. Some of the more intoxicated fans were just plain rude. Overheard near the back: “Nobody wants to hear your mystical flute solo! Shut the f—- up!” Yikes. Oddly enough, the flute was one of the few of the myriad instruments the Low Anthem didn’t pick up and pass around. There was a singing saw, crotales, an accordion, keyboards, drums, electric and acoustic guitars, electric and standing basses – even a lovely clarinet duet. All of which seem to be lost on a rowdy crowd a little too energized for the band’s soft-sung Americana. Sound problems, particularly washed-out drums and muddy vocals, plagued the show and there were points where crowd-noise overwhelmed the mix.
Openers Matthew & The Atlas were the perfect precursor to Mumford & Sons with its more polite, relaxed harmonies. Matthew Hegarty and his accompanying 4-piece came onboard with a pure acoustic set up and alternated between soft country ballads and the intermittent foot-stomping barnburner. Signed to Communion Records, the brainchild of Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett, the band is fresh with just two EPs, but Hegarty’s voice resembles one much more weathered and experienced. Fans of Bon Iver would be right at home with Hagarty’s heartfelt croons, and when Lindsay West raised her voice to harmonize on the “oohs” and “ahs,” you could tell there were goosebumps running through the audience.
Before Mumford & Sons, the high-pitched rip of a trumpet could be heard somewhere to the side of the crowd. Mumford had brought along a mariachi band. I heard someone react with, “Christ, even Mexico is here!” It was fun, and as the mariachis wandered around the standing-room floor, the crowd’s excitement only grew. Mumford & Sons know how to keep their fans waiting.
When the band finally took the stage, it was quite the spectacle. The entire set was surrounded by incredibly bright, incandescent, audience-facing lights. There were bulbs strung out like gigantic Christmas tree lights over the audience, and it gave the feeling of being under some sort of patio, adding a little touch of intimacy to perhaps the most impersonal venue in Asheville.
“Country” Winston Marshall, who’s about as country as his dad, hedge fund millionaire Paul Marshall, drove the set with his jangly banjo riffs. You knew when the hook was about to drop by the orientation of the banjo neck. Like a conductor’s baton, the neck went up at the end of a suspenseful bridge, and half a beat later, down into a wall of acoustic guitar and thumping bass, and a couple of thousand screaming fans.
To be blunt, Mumford & Sons sound a lot like the Avett Brothers, but they embrace that: along with their openers, The Low Anthem and Matthew & the Atlas, the band pulled out a cover of “Go To Sleep” for its first encore. It’s a nice continuation of a theme, but ultimately nothing new.