By Erin Coulehan, Contributor, DC Music Live
Caught somewhere between victory at the Grammys and the American leg of tour, leaders of the folk rock Renaissance, Mumford & Sons, were joined by fellow Englishman Ben Howard for two sold out shows at the Patriot Center on February 13 and 14, sending fans into a tizzy with heartfelt cries and lovelorn guitar riffs. It’s not often that people opt to spend the year’s most romantic evening with 10,000 strangers, but by the end of the Valentine’s Day show, the night had unfolded to reveal a community of starry-eyed fans underneath the myriad canopy of carnival lights which swept the arena.
Folk singer-songwriter Howard lulled the rambunctious crowd into a dreamy state of anticipation before the show’s headliners took the stage; like that moment before biting into a really rich piece of dark chocolate.
Howard’s set included songs off his debut album, Every Kingdom, featuring heart-wrenching folk ballads delivered in such a way that the brimming arena seemed reduced to a down-home and intimate experience that the context of the music suggests. Songs like “Keep Your Head Up” stilled the chatter of the rustling crowd as Howard’s delicate croon subtly commanded the attention of the arena.
Once Howard left the stage, the crowd swelled with anticipation and one question: how long until Mumford & Sons?
Coming off a whirlwind week that began with a performance at the Grammys and later winning the esteemed Album of the Year award for Babel, the band was back in New York by Tuesday and in Fairfax, Virginia Wednesday and Thursday to carry on with the final shows of its U.S. tour.
The Grammy win marks an important moment for the band and Babel itself. After the album was released in September 2012, it underwent criticism suggesting it was too similar to 2009’s Sigh No More, a contrived selection of songs based on a formula “that worked.” But that seems unfair. If the aim of art is to connect with people, then surely the themes of the songs on Babel shouldn’t be dismissed as derivative, but recognized for possessing universality. Envy is easy when the eloquence of a body of work seems effortless, and the sophomore album is just that.
At last Mumford & Sons took the stage around 10 o’clock, silhouetted by a massive crimson curtain which fell as the band opened with the eponymous first track of the album, “Babel.”
The swooning crowd joined in Marcus Mumford’s aching howl during songs like “Little Lion Man” and the band was larger than life when flanked by a lively three-piece string and horn sections, creating a dominating ten-piece collective .
“Shall we have a party then?” teased Mumford, bathed in iridescent light and sweat, from center stage before dedicating the banjo-infused “I Will Wait” to the lovers in the crowd and then transitioning into “Lover of the Light.”
The slow build of the song rang like a romance as Mumford switched from guitar to drums and purred “So love the one you hold /And I’ll be your goal /To have and to hold /A lover of the light,” which erupted into “But I’d be yours, if you’d be mine,” an appropriate Valentine’s Day declaration if ever there was one.
The set took a dark turn when the band played “Thistle and Weeds” which achieved a sophisticated degree of gravitas, with haunting string and piano combinations and mournful cries like an unexpected dust storm on what had been a tranquil day.
Light-heartedness returned to the arena as keys and accordionist Ben Lovett graciously thanked the crowd and the band’s devoted crew for joining them.
“We’re happy to play music for you on such a silly day,” said Lovett.
Mumford & Sons turned up the energy and playfulness in the last half hour of the 100-minute set. Winston Marshall surprised the crowd with an impromptu rendition of Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” which led into the band’s “Roll Away Your Stone.” Fans couldn’t help but clap and sing along in rhythm with Marshall’s effervescent chords and Ted Dwane’s heart-pounding and foot-stomping bass.
The band ended the dynamic set with “Dust Bowl Dance” as Mumford’s roaring percussion work aligned perfectly with the cacophony of lights flooding the arena; thunder to the laser display’s lightning.
The crowd begged for an encore, and just when it seemed the show was over, the men of Mumford surprised the crowd on a small stage on the floor of the west end of the arena, opposite of where they had been playing minutes before.
The band sang an ultra-folky and stripped down acoustic version of “Reminder” and then treated the crowd to “Sister” a capella before returning to the main stage.
The encore hit its apex with “The Cave” as Mumford’s subtle finger picking reminiscent of a casual evening spent on a porch gave way to full on strumming, reminding everyone they were in a sold out arena.
After the four-song encore, the band thanked the audience who stood firmly in their places. They wanted more from the folk rock quartet who had already given so much with its energy, soul-thumping lyrics, and impeccable instrumentation – a craving made hungry where most others satisfy.