Wednesday, June 09, 2010

not your fault but mine

I admit it: Social factors influence my concert schedule. Of course, I go to gigs because I genuinely want to hear music, but it always helps when I can look forward to meeting up with old friends at the venue. These reunions are less common as our tastes diverge and domestic responsibilities take precedence--and truth be told, it's one reason I've cut back on seeing shows. However, I love getting together and sharing a concert with my best buddies, which is how I found myself at the Mumford & Sons gig at Slim's.

Esprit catalog 1980sMumford & Sons, Slim's, June 2, 2010: Believe it or not, I wasn't always one of the cool kids. Bwahahahaha. But in sixth and seventh grade, the awesome alternative girls -- before there was an "alternative" scene -- saw past my deeply bookish exterior, forgave my mousy haircut, and took me under their collective wing. (In my defense, I had a decent wardrobe that can be summed up in one word: Esprit.) It's no exaggeration to say they opened up a new world to me, one filled with people who wore all black and didn't listen to Top 40 music.

Among that gang, one friendship in particular has endured, and I don't mean in the superficial sense, where you view each other's status updates and occasionally "like" an action. In fact, I've made several veiled references to her in this blog. At this point, we're like family, and though we don't see one another as much as I'd like and our tastes have changed, the power of our friendship remains that I gladly attended the Mumford & Sons show at her urging (conveniently, she also offered her extra ticket).

At one point, I would've needed no prodding. A British band's first real foray into the United States was like catnip to me--but more often than not these days, I hit the snooze button for these engagements. I have some very prosaic reasons for doing so, but part of it simply has to do with the way I hear music now. British bands, to oversimplify, tend to sound a little too slick and produced to me. I'm not saying it's good or bad--it really comes down to personal preference. (However, I totally contradict myself on this point, which should be evident to anyone who follows this blog. I mean, have you noticed whose name shows up the most in my writings? Have you heard his music?!)

In this regard, Mumford & Sons followed this pattern. By all appearances, they aren't that different from the folksier, rootsier music I lean toward these days--they play banjos and pedal steel and everything! But there was a sophistication and polish to their tunes that I don't usually hear in comparable bands, especially not one so young. I was reminded of a line of (arguably xenophobic) reasoning I read in some music magazine somewhere; the idea is that the Brits take American influences, filter it through their own cultural touchstones, and sell it back to us--often making a huge splash in the process. It goes back at least to the Beatles, who covered the likes of Little Richard and Carl Perkins in their early years, and applies to, say, the Chemical Brothers, who sampled American underground MCs and filled clubs, theaters, and arenas over here with that hybrid sound.

On second thought, however, maybe I'm totally wrong--if Mumford & Sons are looking to the Appalachians for their influences, you might be able to trace that evolution even further to the European immigrants who first settled that land centuries ago. I'll leave that debate to more argumentative listeners.

Whatever my reservations about the delivery of their sounds, Mumford & Sons' more rustic tunes were the highlights. The handful of big rawk songs they played came across as future anthems, and quite honestly, we have enough bands beating their breasts and aiming for endorsements these days. It doesn't hurt to dial it down and let the public judge you on your inherent talents, especially when you genuinely possess it.

To Mumford & Sons' credit, they don't strike me as the divas in training I used to see when the latest British band rolled into town. Their humility and appreciation stood out--not to mention, they can actually play their instruments. It also helped that Mumford & Sons showed an honest appreciation for their opening band, the Middle East. I've come to rely upon headliners who put some thought into their choice of openers, but back in the Britpop days, handpicked double bills were hard to come by. Instead, UK bands often relied on local promoters to fill out their shows with random performers. I missed the Middle East's portion of the evening's entertainment, but Mumford & Sons brought them back out to close the first part of the set. I love those gestures between bands since they often indicate a deep commitment to not only their fellow musicians, but to the audience and to the industry.

Speaking of the audience, they were primed for this sold-out show. One girl near the front held up a sizable sign decorated with the lead singer's name. Mind you, this sign would've gotten anyone's attention at a football stadium; in a small club, it was overkill--but hey, the more power to her for it. From our portion of the floor, I could see and hear plenty of singing, dancing, and cheering, and no matter where you were, you had to notice the jokes and comments directed at the band itself. Despite the earnestness of their tunes, Mumford & Sons handled the banter with humor and ease. Granted, I'm a pushover for good cheer, but considering I had no skin in this game, it was heartening to see new non-asshole talent commanding the room.

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