Somewhere around the middle of their rapturously received set at Brighton Dome, Marcus Mumford/Johnstone tells the crowd that the band have played more Brighton gigs than any other city outside of London. Rattling through the venues they’ve graced (Komedia, Corn Exchange, The Albert, Resident, etc etc), they mention Fitzherberts, the small pub just around the corner, and the site of their first Brighton show. Anyone who was lucky enough to see that show (or their later tiny gig at Komedia) pretty much knew that the band’s rise to popular success was a fait accomplit, though it’s highly doubtful that many of the assembled fans tonight were there at either of those shows, such is the evident change in the band’s fanbase.
Matthew and the Atlas have the ironically dubious task of opening up earlier in the evening, ironic mainly because their sound (banjo, harmonies, rustic folk-pop, big-voiced front man) is similar enough to Mumford and Sons to instantly render them in the dangerous position of looking like imitators rather than originators. Unfortunate for a band who have a string of very charming songs, a modest way about them, and a deal with Communion Records (the brainchild of Mumford’s Ben Lovett). Certainly, listening to the starkly gorgeous “Within the Rose” proves that the band have plenty of ability of their own, but only if the world is ready for a second Mumford so hot on the heels of the first.
Johnny Flynn is part of the same scene that spawned Mumford and the whole nu-folk tag, although his star is yet to rise to quite the same heights as the headliners, perhaps because of his songwriting, which is far more varied and genre-hopping than Mumford’s, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Songs like set-opener and old fave “The Box”, the stringed-shanty of “Barnacled Warship” and the feisty “Kentucky Pill” have never sounded better. While he has a worshipful fanbase all of his own, and plenty of lyrical and musical clout, it seems unlikely that the multi-talented Flynn will be lingering around the charts quite like Mumford. Nonetheless, as always, there is plenty to admire about his performance and that of his excellent band, including the recent addition of sister Lily — which makes the more nervous of the crowd wonder if Jerome might also be ready in the wings for a duet — and no-one can doubt the quality of the pretty boy of folk-pop’s performance by the end of his set.
By the time Mumford & Sons arrive on stage, a small army of techies have been setting up the stage for their arrival, and if any of the large crowd have any lingering doubts that the band have crossed over to the big time, then the cacophony of noise and audio-visual overload that accompanies them on stage wipes them away instantly. Evidently, this is a group of musicians who were always a pop band at heart; simple rousing songs and a great singer are a compelling enough combination for success, and in Marcus Mumford the four-piece have the equivalent of a nuclear strike in their armoury. It’s just one of those voices that’s hard to hate and easy to love — the perfect mixture of raggedly gruff but boomingly beautiful — and the band’s simple allure is built entirely around it. The songs are solid pop gold too, from the big ballads like “White Blank Page” to the bluegrass influenced stompers like “Roll Away Your Stone” and “Little Lion Man”.
Interestingly, in-between some charmingly dry banter, the band take the opportunity to air some new songs too, although these come across as decidedly bigger and considerably less folky than previous material. In fact the ominous spectre of Snow Patrol seemed to flicker amid the swathes of dry ice momentarily, although that may just have been the heatstroke. Indeed watching the band play and listening to the new material you can sense an inevitable future existence of stadium tours for the foursome. Whether you think this is a good thing probably depends on whether you liked Kings of Leon when they were raw and ’70s influenced, or the newer, sleeker, chart-hungry version. The crowd certainly don’t mind though, and lap it up in a state of mild rapture – the love is almost as tangible as the nose ring on the aged gentleman in front. With their album taking up long-term squatting rights in the album charts and their undeniable popularity, it would be easy to get the knives out for Mumford and Sons. But the boys can play and they’ve brought guitars and harmonies back to the popular music charts, which can’t conceivably be considered a bad thing. Not that that excuses banjo player Winston Marshall’s disturbing new rat’s tail, mind…
After Mumford have trooped off (to considerable well-earned acclaim) around the corner from the Dome there is a strikingly good little jazz four-piece playing in the very same Fitzherberts mentioned earlier in the evening by Marcus Mumford. Watching the bass player of that band, and the little smile that runs across his lips as he produces a sublimely good solo in front of only a smattering of people, you are reminded of the curious iniquities of the musical world. But then maybe that’s the eternal musical choice, the choice between playing big rambunctious pop hits for big crowds, or just playing for the thrill of the music. And who are we to say that anyone should have to choose? We just don’t ever want the music to stop.