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.

  • 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?”


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