Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Music

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

by Imogen , 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 |

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

The Fictional Woman

Carody Culver

Learning from semi-charmed lives

When famous public figures take a step further and use their personal experience as a literary vehicle for exploring wider social issues, I can happily check my celebrity memoir prejudice at the bookshop door. Read more »

My Salinger Year

Carody Culver

Searching for Mr Salinger

Joanna Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney. Read more »

editing

Carody Culver

Giving voice to a silent profession

The role editors play in the process of ushering new writing into the world is both vitally important and strangely overlooked. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

Douglass books

Julia Tulloh

High fantasy writers who aren’t George RR Martin, and who are also women

‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today. Read more »

Conchita Wurst

Julia Tulloh

Why Eurovision 2014 was a bit disappointing

No one watches Eurovision to discover surprise new talent, or even to hear good singing. I watch it for the kitschy, pop-tastic visual onslaught which rarely fails to assault viewers. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

Gabrielle

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Beyond tics, limps and prosthetics

Think of a disability – mental or physical – and there’s sure to be a film that features it. What about giving big roles to actors who actually live with the disability they’re depicting? Now that would be authentic. Read more »

Under the Skin

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Size Matters

Bigger isn’t always better, but some films will open themselves up to you and pour themselves out in new ways when you see them on a cinema screen. Read more »

5881861191_90de8b5bc9

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Making trolls eat their words

If we’re not conscious of a troll’s desired response, we risk inadvertently encouraging further trolling by allowing ourselves to be played. Read more »

filter

Reality vs. Instagram

It’s been over three years since Instagram launched, and we’re still not sure whether processing a photograph might be considered akin to doctoring a memory. Read more »

2014 Budget

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Could we crowdfund the dole?

Following the announcement of the 2014 budget, the director of a leading arts organisation posed a question on Facebook: ‘What recourse do the people have to stop these changes? What are next steps? Would be curious to know of any other effective measures to get the message across… apart from complaining on Twitter.’ Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

Danielle Binks

Who run the book world? GIRLS!

‘It’s no wonder boys aren’t reading – the children’s book market is run by women.’ So claimed the headline of an April article in The Times.

*Cue Liz Lemon eye-roll* Read more »

The Fault in Our Stars

Danielle Binks

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

I like John Green as much as the next YA-aficionado. I’ve snot-cried through his books, and chuckled over his YouTube videos. But now it’s time to talk about the media-led oversaturation of John Green, and the insulting way he’s been heralded as the saviour of young adult fiction. Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

The Knife

Chad Parkhill

Never Settled: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Making live electronic music engaging is a difficult task, and The Knife’s Silent Shout tour shows a band committed to breaking the visual cliché of performers standing still behind banks of electronic equipment. Read more »

Tori Amos

Chad Parkhill

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »

deadwood-03-1024

Zora Sanders

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Zora Sanders defends Highbrow TV

I’m going to be honest with you. I feel a little guilty being gifted highbrow TV as a subject to defend. Highbrow TV doesn’t need a defender! It’s a battle that has been won! Highbrow TV is downright fucking awesome and every single person reading this already knows it. Read more »