If Boston needed a little post-holiday pick-me-up to brighten spirits before the snowstorm, it is hard to imagine a much better stress-reducer than the concert held last Tuesday night at TD Garden featuring Mumford & Sons, Ben Howard, and The Felice Brothers. In the debut performance of the Sons’ current U.S. tour, the three groups convened in what seemed an all-male family gathering in which they impressed with the folksy combination of their heartfelt lyrics and earthy instrumentals.
The first opener, Ben Howard, assumed the role of the cool older cousin. Howard was always careful to use his indoor voice, giving his performance the feel of an intimate living room set. Unfortunately, the massive TD Garden was half empty at the beginning of the concert, so the chatter of fans still trickling in detracted slightly from Howard’s indrawn performance.
The set list was short and sweet—perhaps a bit too short—and included lesser-known songs in addition to favorites like “Only Love” from Howard’s first album. Howard was unafraid to wander from the original recorded versions of his songs, easily lengthening chords and drawing out passages in a way that demonstrated his musical prowess. Sitting down with his guitar, he filled the space with his enveloping sound in a way that was simultaneously comforting and melancholy, like wrapping up in a wool blanket on a blustery day.
Later on, even Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons commented on Howard’s remarkably tranquil vibe. In between songs, Mumford complained facetiously to the audience about having to share the stage with Howard—“He’s like the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, and it just pisses you off.”
The Felice Brothers provided a more upbeat transition into the main act, although they sometimes came across like the less mature, younger siblings. Though the band moved between upbeat and downtempo songs, their Bob Dylan reminiscent ballads were all too predictable and their instrumentals did not pack the same kind of focused energy as those of either the Sons or Howard.
Decidedly not a rock band, the group seemed eager to shed its New York roots in favor of Midwestern twang, with song titles like “Whisky in my Whisky” and the occasional sung “sha-na-ny-na” piling country flair onto their washboard instrumentals. Nevertheless, the Felice Brothers seemed confused about their own identity, with two band members wearing skinny jeans and the rest Levi’s. Although the beat of their songs was often too messy to easily sway along with, their happiness felt authentic, and the band members seemed genuinely pleased to be up on stage—qualities all three acts had in common.
After much anticipation, the curtain went up and the show went down. Whereas Howard’s set was reserved and the Felice Brothers’ sounded like a roughly-cut hodgepodge of folkish ditties, Mumford & Sons came onto the stage with all of the finesse and presence of a seasoned father figure, stomping and swaying in their collared shirts with an air that said, “yes, we are what you have been waiting for.” And for all of the hype surrounding their latest album and speculation over whether the band can forever live up to its self-proclaimed “unashamed” sound, the Sons indisputably delivered.
From the first chord of their opening number, “Babel,” the crowd was hooked. Mumford & Sons played each note with the well-rehearsed vision that has earned them their international rock-star status. It took nearly an orchestra of musicians to produce the kind of sound in the incredibly polished “Winter Winds,” but whether the four men were playing by themselves or surrounded by trumpet players, there was nothing uncertain about the way they performed; their lyrics saturated with emotion and instruments working as hard as the light crew, Mumford & Sons gave clearly more of a show than the other two acts. This seemed to be just fine with the audience, who at times raised their palms to the sky in mock religious observation.
Speaking to Mumford & Sons’ widespread appeal--middle-aged fans outnumbered teenagers by far (perhaps due to the steep price of tickets) and seemed just as enthused as their younger counterparts. Sweatshirts and baseball caps abounded, although the concert did draw the occasional hipster.
One of the band’s biggest criticisms is that all of its songs sound the same, but while Marcus Mumford’s now iconic croon powered each song, the set list packed enough energy to never seem repetitive and demonstrated considerable variety of chord progression and tempo, contributing to a show that had just the right amount of ebb and flow. Opening crowd-pleasers like “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait” built up a mood of enthusiasm that lasted throughout the night, even for less sensationalized numbers.
Mumford & Sons has excellence down to a science. They know how to please a crowd, how to throw themselves into their songs as though performing for the first time, and it makes for a fantastic concert. With sweat dripping from their once-coiffed hair, they finished the show by suddenly emerging on a different stage for the encore. Singing a cappella, the men ended on a more subdued note by performing a few gentler numbers, but not before imploring the crowd to be “really fucking quiet,” which naturally lasted all of thirty seconds.
Between the bittersweet melodies of Ben Howard and the infectious energy of Mumford & Sons, the concert was accessible while still showcasing ample artistic talent. Perhaps because they play instruments like banjos and acoustic guitars, all three groups performed the kind of music best seen live, and their distinct styles complemented each other nicely. As such, it was a uniquely moving concert, marked by the passion of the performers and the delight of the audience.