IoS pop review: Mumford & Sons, SECC, Glasgow
Ben Folds Five, Brixton Academy, London
Maybe it's just the Glaswegian audience, but a Mumford & Sons gig is seemingly incomplete without people chucking beer over each other
Sunday 09 December 2012
The tough, take-no-prisoners self-image of the city of Glasgow has taken a severe beating, and it's been dished out by a group of waistcoated Wimbledonian toffs in perma-Movember moustaches.
The legendary Scottish suspicion towards all things southern, English and posh is one to which Mumford & Sons seem strangely exempt. Not only are they able to fill the SECC, Glasgow's biggest indoor venue, but they're even headlining T in the Park next year.
It's not as if I didn't see their hugeness coming. In the spring of 2010, when they were still touring the club circuit, I wrote that they were "strapped to the side of a rocket with a fizzing fuse", and "on the way to being Coldplay-sized". I went as far as to venture: "Put your money on them for the 2011 Brits." They went on to win Album of the Year and become that rare thing: a British band conquering America. (Sigh No More topped the Billboard charts.) Mumfords' success isn't a total shock. I'm not even going to pretend that they don't know how to write a decent song: recent single "Lover of the Light" has a certain sparkle. Just don't expect me to cheer them on.
Along the way they have, Marcus Mumford tells us, played Glasgow more than anywhere else. I'm surprised, nevertheless, that they're so loved north of the border, but maybe it figures that they'd chime with the public of Deacon Blue's home town, and what they do isn't a million miles from Runrig either, with their Christian-but-not-Christian, rousing but vague lyrics and big, beer-chucking choruses.
There's a bit in every Mumfords intro where the banjos and guitars go fast and loud all at once; the lighting engineer whacks up the brightest bulbs, and people throw pint glasses in the air. Now, if there was ever a gig-going equivalent of the Kermode Code of Conduct for cinema – and I may have to write one – then pint-throwing would be Cardinal Sin No 1. It's the most vile thing you can do: randomly ruining a stranger's night. Maybe the internet is to blame: a whole generation raised on the idea of anonymous actions without comeback or consequence, engaged in the physical equivalent of trolling. And from the very first note, Mumford & Sons fans can't get enough of it. Even a change of tempo can't halt the deluge. When the Mumfords play a dirge, the real-life Begbies just head to the SECC bar to buy more drinks. To throw at each other.
Standing up for two hours to watch a guy sitting down at a piano is a strange situation, and it's a rare Brixton gig where the stalls envy the balcony, but Ben Folds Five were always proudly anomalous.
Distinct from the kitsch easy-listening revival that was going on in the mid-Nineties, BFF turned the complex, mellow sounds of Seventies AOR and Fifties jazz into a young man's thing. Their classic second album Whatever and Ever Amen was a quietly radical record, bringing suspended fourths and diminished sixths into a world of moronic majors and minors, bringing "Take Five" rhythms to a "Teen Spirit" generation.
Folds also (re)established the piano as an instrument you could rock with. Not that he cared for the rock mentality: a purveyor of what he once called "punk rock for sissies", Folds has always had a delicious line in hostility towards alternative cliché. Witness the weary sarcasm of the opening to "Underground" ("Hand me my nose ring, lead me to the moshpit ..."), the viciously funny Nu Metal satire "Rockin' the Suburbs" ("You better watch out, I think I'm gonna say 'fuuuck!'"), and the impossibly eloquent title of "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces".
Looking suspiciously less bald than he did in 2001, Folds, after a decade solo, is back with his band: deft drummer Darren Jessee and unobtrusive bassist Robert Sledge, and it's a wonderful thing to be hearing again the joyous "Jackson Cannery", the wistful "Alice Childress", the heartbreaking "Brick" and the jubilantly vengeful "Song for the Dumped". It's no hardship, either, to hear material from comeback album The Sound of the Life of the Mind which, Folds admits, sold "fewer copies than there are people in this room".
He's an unexpectedly flamboyant stage presence these days, standing to conduct the audience participation, and improvising – as he does on every night – a song called "Rock This Bitch" about the venue itself. In this case, he recalls seeing Rage Against the Machine here in 1997, eating a hamburger, then finding out about mad cow disease the next day.
He's nevertheless glad to be back. London is, he says, "one of the first places we felt understood". And London still understands.
The suddenly-massive Black Keys play the NIA, Birmingham (tonight); Arena, Manchester (Tue); and the 02 Arena, London (Wed and Thu). British Sea Power revive their Krankenhaus club night for a Christmas special, with a bill including Public Service Broadcasting and The Pre-New, at The Haunt, Brighton (Fri).
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