Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Music

Not incompatible, but mighty strange: The rise of the popular folk band

by Samantha van Zweden , November 14, 20122 Comments

Photo credit: gabavenue

Marcus Mumford, lead man of Mumford & Sons, flicks the in-ear monitors out of his ears, throwing away the sound of the band’s foldback. His singing slows down, and the crowd falls out of sync with the band. Mumford has done this on purpose, separating his own voice from the crowd’s – he almost visibly swells, listening to thousands of people singing along.

A few weeks ago, I saw Mumford & Sons play with Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros at Rod Laver Arena. The crowd was a bizarre stew of bearded men, young girls, hat-wearing gentlemen and proud musicians. Tickets to this show sold for around $90, and they sold out fast. Rod Laver Arena has a capacity of 18,420 people, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find an empty seat.

Hanging over the crowd were strings of brilliant lights similar to those used in the film clip for Mumford & Sons’ huge hit, ‘Little Lion Man’. The stage was decked out with huge white dishes that exploded with light like old-fashioned camera flashes; the sheer size of the stage allowed the dynamic and quite large bands to spread out, and the close-up screens helped shorties like me see the emotion written all over the musicians’ faces. While this would normally turn me off an arena show, making the performance impersonal, Marcus Mumford’s heartbreak-face as he screamed into the microphone made it worth it. All of this was grand and overwhelming, but the idea of a folk band playing such a huge venue struck me as really quite bizarre.

Is folk music and large-scale success incompatible? Not at all. (See Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary.) We do seem to be in a very particular place in musical history though, where we are met with the phenomenon of ‘mega’ folk bands. For a handful of folk bands right now, Top 10 hits are regular, as are stadium shows and crowds numbering in the thousands. The weirdness here stems from the seeming innocence of these musicians – they seem regard their situation with what can only be described as awe.

Alex Ebert, the front man of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, dances shoeless, spinning in bliss like he is in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. He raises his arms and shakes his hands, revival-style, leaping around the expansive stage. Vocalist Jade Castrinos closes her eyes and sways as she’s moved by the physicality and creative force of the musicians around her. Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros’ approach seems to be: have a party on the stage, and the crowd will come along. And we do.

The 2011 documentary, Big Easy Express, follows Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show as they travel in an enormous train across the American Southwest. Between shows, the musicians lounge in carriages collaborating on new songs, stopping in small towns to play music from the train to handfuls of people. There are small children on this tour, and the musicians stop in paddocks and at docks along the way to shoot impromptu film clips. There’s a real jazz, tumbleweed feeling about traveling the country playing music on a train. Ebert describes it as ‘rambling’; that classic American flight by the seat of your pants, the attitude that the Beat generation epitomised.

There’s an odd tension between the attitudes of these musicians, with their Beat outlook and indie folk image, and the fact that when the train stops, they’re playing massive venues. The immensity of Mumford & Sons’ popularity hits when we start talking numbers – the recent tour was to promote their new album Babel, which moved 600,000 copies in its first week. The Mumford boys also managed to have six of their songs in the top 100 at the same time – a feat only ever matched by The Beatles and the cast of Glee. This level of fame opens up some big opportunities for the band, as evidenced by Rod Laver Arena’s impressive sound and lights, the huge crowd, and the amount of people listening to their music all over the world.

Mumford & Sons want to celebrate the venue size. They encourage clapping, and they listen to the crowd singing. Meanwhile, I’m desperate to pretend that we’re not in a huge venue. If I put on my imaginary blinkers, it’s almost as if I’m just in a big hall. Even then, it’s a damn big hall. But I go with it; I put those blinkers on. Because when Marcus Mumford flicks the in-ear monitors out of his ears, he’s so genuine. He closes his eyes, singing with everything inside of him into the microphone, and the crowd echoes back to him in waves.

Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She blogs as Little Girl With a Big Pen.




  • http://mulberryroad.tumblr.com Genevieve Tucker (@mulberry_road)

    I like to think of most popular music as just a few steps removed from folk. “Elvis was a Cajun”, as Roddy Doyle so memorably joked.
    Mass distribution will not weary them,nor custom stale the Mumfords’ infinite variety. (Possibly not so infinite, if it is real folk, of course. But now I’ve got my blinkers on….jesus, it’s dark in here.)
    Thanks for a lovely review, Sam, and for honestly sharing your misgivings. The Rod Laver space is that funny thing, a stadium that’s not quite a stadium.

    I saw Peter, Paul and Mary at Festival Hall once and there you have a very glossy, adopted kind of folk, probably a different creature again (haven’t heard M&Sons yet, so I’m guessing here). Will never forget hearing Mary Travers asserting in that throaty, deep voice of hers that she learned “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” from Paul Robeson, and thinking to myself, “so where did the rest of us learn it, then, I wonder?”

  • Pingback: On Killings |()

loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

discworld

Elizabeth Flux

Footnote to a life: How Terry Pratchett kept me from going postal

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then teenage me would have been the steamroller to Terry Pratchett’s somewhat plagiarised tarmac. In the ten years since I first picked up The Fifth Elephant, my work has been littered with Pratchettisms to varying degrees. Read more »

Patricia-Highsmith2

James Tierney

The Necessary Paradoxes of Patricia Highsmith

A highly regarded author of complex psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction comes freighted with a heady mix of cross-purposes and intimate alienations. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

article-2301242-18FA52E4000005DC-314_470x763

Rebecca Shaw

An Inconvenient Truth: Social stigma and menstruation

If you have heard of menstruation, you would know that it is an essential process in a little tiny thing called the EXISTENCE AND CONTINUATION OF HUMAN LIFE, and it is something that most (not all) women experience for about five days every month for a large part of their lives. It is a topic (besides shopping, lol) that women think about frequently. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

9331818982_322b389ff2_z

Annabel Brady-Brown

The blue pill or the red pill? In defence of highbrow film

Cinema is a powerful medium. Going to the movies, be it a Lav Diaz epic or a Michael Bay blockbuster, is an act of submission. You hand over $15 and the whole mash of your brain/senses/heart/dreams for ninety minutes. Read more »

girlwalkshomealoneatnight

Anwen Crawford

Bad Cities

A Most Violent Year has an atmosphere of all-pervading dread, like a film noir, as if the polluted air of New York itself was causing people to act against their better intentions. Even more haunting and more noir is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a memorably audacious debut feature from American-Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

agent-carter-7683

Danielle Binks

Agent Carter and the future of the female superhero

Agent Carter has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. If this supposedly groundbreaking new show fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises? Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

cher_horowitz_closet-010_2

Katie Williams

Fashion Forward: How hidden algorithms are dressing up technology

Though we increasingly rely on technology to simplify our lives, we still want to believe that behind the scenes is a happy, human face, rather than an impassive machine that does the dirty work for us. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »

Before Us_3

Jane Howard

Stuart Bowden’s Unfamiliar, Universal Worlds

It’s hard to classify the work of Stuart Bowden. His one-person storytelling theatre works are at once hilarious and melancholy. They exist in a particular space of fringe theatre: intricately crafted stories built for small rooms & small audiences, they lift and rise that audience, gathering us all up in the magic of stories & the closeness they can breed. Read more »