The Mumford Dilemma

Mumford and Sons perform at the iHeart Radio Private show, New York City. Photo by Matt Ellis.

Sometimes writing about rock and roll feels like a real job. You’re paid to do something others do for fun and then make it feel like everybody is there with you in the special super-extra-awesome version of the experience. Most of the time this is easy. Like when you get backstage at Saturday Night Live or Perry Farrell drives you around Lollapalooza in his golf cart or Evan Dando offers to smoke you out on a random Tuesday afternoon or Marilyn Manson runs his fingers through your hair three feet from Simon LeBon and a plate of crudite. But other times you go out in dutiful chase of the scene and you return with experiences that barely pass the Law & Order test: Would I rather be here or at home in my underwear, chain watching Law & Order? To be fair, I’m talking SVU or Criminal Intent here, the really good shit. But still, rock should eclipse an evening of police procedurals, even ones that star Vincent D’Onofrio. This week, I saw three rock shows, and all three passed but it was close.

Jamaica, the much buzzed-about French-rock duo, played to a gaggle of hipsters damp from the icky late-spring mist outside and packed in tightly at the Mercury Lounge in NYC last Saturday night. Is this cheeky dance rock duo the new Phoenix? Well, sure, in that they are French and good, but aren’t Daft Punk or Serge Gainsbourg (the pre-Phoenix options for anything cool and musical and French). Sunday was Crystal Stilts at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The crowd was like the kids at the Jamaica show after ten years in the city, when their youthful exuberance has been muted by heartbreak and vodka-induced burst capillaries and post-art-school real jobs. The band is great, though. They merge the sleazy rockabilly sex appeal of the Cramps with the Jesus and Mary Chain’s aloof elegance and Bauhaus’s unapologetic moroseness. Plus, they pulled my new favorite NYC rock girl, a Helena Bonham Carter lookalike in a velour backless bodysuit, who kept clasping at her buoyant curls like they were all that tethered her to reality.

Still, it was Wednesday’s private Mumford and Sons show for iHeartRadio Live that stands out. When I saw the venue name – PC Richards & Son Theater – I should have known. It was one of those shows where they manufacture a club environment out of what is essentially a hotel conference room and then light it really intensely so it looks cool on video. Someone could have been bar mitzvah’d here, but this evening was filled with a mix of giddy superfans and Midtown girls in Tory Birch flats getting loaded on Chardonnay. It’s hard to imagine an environment less suited to the Mumfords, a quad of professionally earnest British folk-rockers who look like extras from The Grapes of Wrath, worship Americana of all kinds and refuse even the slightest dusting of powder at photo shoots. “For our sake and yours, let’s pretend we’re at a small club,” half-joked keyboardist Ben Lovett a few songs into the set.

Was it hot in this weird non-venue? Yes. Was the crowd full of cubicle-manning twenty-somethings who suddenly love banjos? Totally. Did some cheesy Jessica Simpson look-alike spill an entire glass of wine down my leg and into my boot? Mmm, hmmm. But the thing is, when you have a confident band in command of a room (even one with synthetic ceiling tiles) you have a compelling show. With no ceremony whatsoever, the Mumfords achieved utter crowd silence as they harmonized on tracks like “Sigh No More,” earned inquisitive listening to the new (and excellent) song “Lovers Eyes,” then transformed the audience into chorus-shouting mass on hits like “Little Lion Man.” And when singer Marcus Mumford cracked up while trying to begin a song, he let us in on the joke. “Winston realized he can get in the guitar lick from [Shania Twain’s] ‘Man, I Feel Like a Woman.’ It was the proudest moment of his life.” The impish banjoist grinned. “The best thing about being a woman, according to Shania, is the prerogative to have a little fun,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from her.”

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