Four voices. One guitar. One banjo. One microphone. Turns out that’s all it takes to silence 20,000 screaming voices. As Mumford & Sons perform a spare, spellbinding rendition of Timshel, London’s largest indoor venue suddenly becomes its most intimate.
But this isn’t The Slaughtered Lamb. Vocal harmonies, no matter how sublime, aren’t enough to entertain a crowd of this size for two hours. Mobile phones are a constant source of distraction. And the price of admission alone demands a spectacle. Muse had drones. U2 performed inside a 29-metre video screen. Even Elbow, never once described as flashy, turned up with a giant mirrorball.
So Mumford & Sons, following the current trend of playing in the round, have brought the stage forward, to the middle of the arena. Stretching the full width of the floor, it’s a far bigger platform than Metallica’s circular set or Arcade Fire’s boxing ring, allowing for ramps, raised walkways, pyro, and a lighting rig advanced enough to have been developed in Wakanda. Four monster video screens, suspended in each corner of the dome and angled to be seen from even the cheapest seats, round out a setup so complex that several shows have been postponed due to “unforeseen logistical and technical challenges”.
Those challenges aren’t at all obvious during tonight’s slick 21-song set that’s all enthusiasm – and not just from the performers. Of course the crowd go craziest for the banjo-and-kick-drum songs from the group’s first two albums. Sigh No More and Babel tracks like Little Lion Man, Babel, The Cave, Roll Away Your Stone, and I Will Wait aren’t just their biggest hits to date; they’re also the band’s most urgent and direct, perfect for clapping and shouting along to.
It helps that Marcus Mumford (on vocals and, primarily, guitar), banjo player and lead guitarist Winston Marshall, bassist Ted Dwayne, multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett, and a small army of hired hands, play the classics as joyfully and passionately as the newer stuff. Dominating the setlist, current LP Delta advances the mainstream rock sound of predecessor, Wilder Mind. In short: less Fleet Foxes, more Coldplay; less four-to-the-floor stomps, more slow-building anthems that reach a crescendo before stopping suddenly.
Show opener Guiding Light, with its chiming Edge-like guitar riff, propulsive synth groove, and instantly welcoming chorus, is the perfect introduction to this sonic evolution. Certainly, presenting it with a confidence usually reserved for a bonafide hit, helps encourage the audience that everything’s going to be OK.
Beloved (performed with support act Maggie Rogers) is another hand-holder. Reintroducing folk to the mix, it transforms spectacularly from muted Lumineers-style ballad into a chest-thumper of Vertigo proportions that has Mumford roaring like peak-era Bono on the giant screens. Similarly, the darker Slip Away ebbs and flows between quiet heartache and unbridled euphoria as it summarises Kings of Leon’s finest moments in five spectacular minutes.
The magnificent If I Say throws gospel, trumpets, a full string section, and even an In The Air Tonight drum fill at the slowburn template. And the epic show closer Delta was seemingly written for that very purpose. Beginning with just Mumford’s voice and guitar, the sudden introduction of a drum beat causes 40,000 hands to clap spontaneously. As the rest of the band join in, the tempo builds, the music swells, the knockout chorus arrives right on cue, and jubilant singing along from the stands is as inevitable as the confetti rain.
But there are challenges too. The Wild, a naked ballad hanging from a spare piano melody, is perhaps too subtle for an audience of this size. And Darkness Visible, which emerges from the comfortable finger-snaps and droning synths of Picture You, is three minutes of Imagine Dragons on a bad acid trip. Turns out savage guitar soloing, frenetic horror movie piano melodies, and pounding bass drums aren’t quite as hummable as Awake My Soul, a song Mumford later describes as “perhaps the easiest in the world”.
The chatty frontman keeps it casual tonight, thanking the fans for their patience, speaking eloquently about the group’s love of playing live, ribbing his bandmates and bigging up their collaborators such as Noah And The Whale man Tom Hobden on fiddle, and even revealing that “all these songs are in some way about football”.
Mumford knows that conversation will only get you so far, though. So, like most performers, he’s a cheerleader, inciting various parts of the arena to out-shout each other or, during Believe, asking everybody to light up the arena with their mobile phones. He’s a drummer, manning the kit while singing Lover Of The Light. And, for the duration of Ditmas, he’s a parkour runner, leaping over barriers, bounding up and down stairs, sidestepping overzealous fans, while camera men try to keep up.
Sure, it’s all been done before, but what’s clear is that Mumford truly wants to engage with his audience. And in the process he creates a sense of unity that can’t be bought. Not even with a space-age stage.
Review of Mumford & Sons at The O2 Arena on 29th November 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Kalpesh Patel.