When The Lumineers hit the big time with 2012’s inescapable Ho Hey, they were lumped in with the other bands riding the folk revival wave of the time. Their contemporaries (say Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters And Men) have since embraced Coldplay-rock, adult-oriented-pop, inoffensive electronica, and everything Imagine Dragons have ever done. But The Lumineers have stuck to their guns.
The group’s recently released third album (the aptly named III), is all acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, cello, and drums that alternately shuffle and gallop. But that’s not to say that the group, led by singer-guitarist Wesley Shultz and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites, are stuck in the past or a barn somewhere in Idaho.
Songs like the rollicking Life In The City and tender ballad Dead Sea, which the earnest Shultz attributes to his now wife, are just as timeless as the organic instrumentation the musicians favour, with even more mass appeal.
Slick enough to fill out The O2 Arena on a Wednesday night, The Lumineers’ repertoire is as tasteful as the staging: all exposed wood and velvet drapes, paired with a Vegas-calibre light show. The effect is completed by three human-height, petal-shaped, timber-and-fabric screens awash with colours and textures behind the musicians.
But there’s nothing restrained about the performance itself. Even before the musicians take the stage, with spotlights sweeping across the crowd to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, they want you to know that, beneath the sheen, this is a rock ‘n roll show at heart.
The venues, budgets, and audiences may have grown dramatically but, where it counts, nothing much has changed since the group played to 200 people in Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen (and were accidentally locked out of the venue before the encore) less than a decade ago.
So, despite all that’s going on behind them, for stretches of the show the entire band perform in a row at the foot of the stage, using just the songs and the joyous intensity of their playing to connect – with each other and thousands of strangers. In fact, some of the most powerful moments happen when Shultz and Fraites are left alone up there to perform the stark Slow It Down and angelic Donna.
Yet for all the intimacy, they also know how to play to the highest seats of an arena. Shultz hops into the audience, to walk among the fans, during Ophelia. Prone to putting his feet up on the keys, or leaping off raised platforms, the barefoot Stelth Ulvang bounds onto the top of his upright piano to dance and bash a tambourine as Big Parade hits its fiesta finale and the audience clap along enmasse.
When not stuck behind his kit, Fraites is just as energetic, literally skipping from drums to keys to the guitars being handed out by a roadie, while Byron Isaacs (mainly bass), Brandon Miller (mainly guitar), and Lauren Jacobson (mainly strings) are equally adept at playing seemingly any instrument with flair and confidence.
But it’s not all big smiles and shouts of “ho!”. Shultz introduces Leader Of The Landslide by revealing the sombre, heartbreaking origins of its protagonist’s descent into addiction and homelessness.
And, before performing a heavy rendition of Leonard Cohen’s 1992 track Democracy (with the late singer’s backing vocalists, The Webb Sisters), the frontman quotes its most prescient lines: “I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/ I love the country but I can’t stand the scene/ And I’m neither left or right/ I’m just staying home tonight/ Getting lost in that hopeless little screen”.
That hopelessness doesn’t last long. The Webbs stick around for a stirring take on Angela, before the good-time finale Stubborn Love and its “oh oh”s has the entire audience shouting, clapping, and stomping along as one. That’s a send-off that can’t be bought, no matter how big the budget.
Review of The Lumineers at The O2 Arena on 27th November 2019 by Nils van der Linden. Photos by Kalpesh Patel.