What happens when a band plays a concert at a venue that's smaller than what it theoretically could sell out? Well, for starters, you can scalp your $20 ticket for 75 bucks, no questions asked. And for another, the crowd, fearful that they'll be relegated to the spot behind the seven foot tall guy, packs in like sardines for the opener.
The first man onstage, King Charles, probably hadn't seen a crowd like this. He seemed nervous behind his flowing locks and guitar, unable to keep the venue's attention. The people who came when the doors opened devolved into their own conversation. His was a fast set, though, and the band sharing the marquee, Cadillac Sky, turned things around. Cadillac Sky is a bluegrass act, a few guys with suspenders and bushy beards that made us stomp our feet and clap our hands, adjust our plaid shirts and take another sip of our whiskey-gingers. Nothing gets a crowd like this going like slapping a banjo, and the anticipation of the headliner was palpable. So was the weed smoke, wafting up in blue clouds and curling up like T. S. Eliot's cat.
The buzz continued through the intermission, and the noise was deafening when Mumford & Sons finally took the stage.
"Good evening," one of the guys said. And without pretense, the outfit began.
"Serve God love me and mend/This is not the end." The booming singalong started with the first harmonized lines of "Sigh No More" with the band backlit and shrouded in shadows. Then glittering strands of bulbs lit up the stage, and most members of the crowd threw their hands in the air, continuing to belt out lyrics right into the determined "Awake My Soul" and "Roll Away My Stone," which ebbed and flowed, bringing the dancing fans along for the ride.
No one talked much until about the fourth song, when singer Marcus Mumford asked if the crowd would like a waltz to go with the weather and then launched into a soulful rendition of "Winter Winds," prompting the crowd to punch the sky to the decisive beats and cacophony of the newly-introduced trumpets.
The band's reputation preceded it. Its last album, Sigh No More, was a compilation of haunting folk rock, equal parts melancholy and optimistic, frenzied at times, and at least a little patriotic and self-affirming, always, always evocative, and the energy behind it is amplified tenfold when played live. Mumford sings with enchanting emotion beneath a dramatic lighting scheme, and every note is played with intention. Each song felt bigger, as if it had an X factor that was edited out in the studio recording, but can't be suppressed on stage.
Native Brits, Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane formed Mumford & Sons in 2007, and though they've toured extensively since then, they probably didn't anticipate that here in the Rocky Mountains, they'd find a crowd quite so thoroughly obsessed. In fact, when they reached their first new song, they quipped that they thought every song would be new, since they've never headlined in Colorado before. The crowd roared with laughter.
That new song was tentatively called "Below My Feet." It began like many of their songs, slow with haunting lyrics, breaking suddenly into a rapid beat that had the crowd clapping in rhythm without prompting.
The band then erupted into the rocking break-up-make-up anthem "Little Lion Man," and as soon as the first notes started pumping through the speakers, a giant beach ball appeared, as if out of nowhere. That's around the time Mumford & Sons really hit its stride, riding the energy of the crowd, seasoned enough to keep their composure, but not so jaded that they weren't having fun.
After that, the guys traded instruments. Dwane, the bassist, took the drums. Then Mumford did. Lovett grabbed an accordion, and they played us a song they say they made up in sound check, tentatively called "Broken Crown." And at the end of it, Mumford snapped a string on his acoustic guitar, but the band never skipped a beat.
"Dust Bowl Dance" was the last song of the set, and it ended like a question, hanging in the air as if they were challenging us to invite them back. We did, chanting "Mumford. Mumford. MUMFORD. MUMFORD!"
The band obliged, tossed us the beach ball again, and played "The Cave" as the crowd jumped along to the beat. The guys had big smiles on their faces, and it was difficult to tell who was happier about the explosive finish, them or us.
There are a couple of different kinds of great concerts. In one, a band shocks a sleepy crowd, carrying them through their world with an unexpected energy. In another, the crowd is so excited, the energy carries the band. Mumford & Sons had that crowd, and, therefore, really COULDN'T play a bad show. But exceeding expectations is another thing entirely. And this band delivered.
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The next time these guys leave England to grace Colorado, they may very well sell out the 1STBANK Center or the Fillmore. Seeing them in a small Colfax venue was an eyes-closed-head-back-deep-moan treat.
Click through for Critic's Notebook and Setlist.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I'm a fan, but not superfan. I've got the Sigh No More album, and I've listened to it enough times to know a few of the chorus lines well enough to sing along. Random Detail: A tiny plastic donkey was perched on the edge of the keyboard for the whole show. The band says they've had it for a year. By the Way: While we got a couple of off-album gems, including a never-before-performed-live diddy, the band skipped one of the encore songs on the set list. They didn't play the unreleased Whispers or Sister.