I missed it. I’m an area resident and one of many fans of the English band Mumford & Sons who were clamoring for tickets to the “Gentlemen of the Road Fest” held Aug. 18, in an unlikely locale: Dixon, Ill, pop. 15,773, home to one of the state’s biggest medium security prisons and birthplace of President Ronald Reagan.
With a towering statue of Chief Black Hawk overlooking the city and river, it’s also the spot where, in 1832, President Abraham Lincoln met up with the Illinois militia at Fort Dixon to fight in the bloody Black Hawk War.
But M&S— whose “gentleman” tour included Gogol Bordello, Dawes, Abigail Washburn and other acts— had no say on this particular tour date. Dixon officials entered and won a National Trust Main Street contest to host a “major band tour of historic towns.” (No doubt it was a welcome bit of news amid a bad municipal run: the town’s Comptroller/Treasurer, Rita Crundwell, was indicted by the feds in April for allegedly embezzling $30 to $53 million from town coffers.)
Still, they threw out the welcome mat and let the music play for Dixon, which celebrated the event with storefront murals to greet the 15,000 fans who showed and nearly doubled the town’s population.
The Grammy-winning Mumford & Sons, whose newest record, Babel, is set for release next month, are an unplugged musical and lyrical tour de force, employing acoustic instruments, mostly, to deliver body blows of resonant sound, introspection and prescient honesty.
They rose to prominence from the “west London Folk Scene” that also cultivated such like-minded bands as “Noah and the Whale.” But when M&S played with Bob Dylan at the 2010 Grammys, the world too was finally able to make the musical connection, as that first network appearance pushed sales of its debut “Sigh No More” and thrusted M&S to major global headliner.
Yet, as demonstrated by the gent tour’s low-key vibe, it is isn’t bombast that wins hearts and minds for M&S — rather, it’s the multi-hued harmonies and lyrics that tend to hit in the sore spots — as they seemingly punch right through the id, ego and superego, to the universal aches and desires of a disharmonious age.
“We’ll be washed and buried one day, my girl, and the time we were given will be left for the world. The flesh that lived and loved will be eaten by clay — so let the memories be good for those who stay…” (Winter Winds, Sigh no More).
To be sure, the return of harmony and fiddle and mandolin and acoustic guitar and personal poetry to mainstream music isn’t a new phenomenon — the 1960s era of Dylan, Pete Seeger and other singer-songwriters was called a “folk revival,” though it should be noted that Dylan, in particular, hated such labels, and hated how his music was appropriated as soundtrack for the bedlam in the streets and college campuses of Vietnam-era America.
“Whereever I am, I’m a 60’s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows.” (Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1, 2004, Simon & Schuster).
In more recent times, Uncle Tupelo — and later its members, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy — mined similar territory populated by folk, country, bluegrass and punk to create the “No Depression” or ‘Alternative Country’ sound that, in the early to mid 1990s, began delivering a convincing counterpoint to the heavily-produced, Nirvana rip-off bands that dominated alternative radio.
Today, Mumford & Sons have their own contemporaries, most notably the Avett Brothers, whose lush ballads filled with cello, piano, acoustic guitar and varying time signatures also embrace traditional American themes and personal pain.
Something, though, sets M&S far apart from these great bands. It perhaps has to do with their willingness to address not only what’s wrong with the world, but what to do about it. The songs on “Sigh No More” don’t point the accusing finger at humanity and its leaders but at the listener, and the songwriter; therein lies the real magic.
“I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?” lead singer Marcus Oliver Johnston confesses on “Little Lion Man.”
Such naked admissions seem anethma to an age in which fuck is used as a bludgeon to help shock, humiliate and violate. Mumford and Sons, conversely, sing about forgiveness, renewal and the loneliness of a long winter, even as auto-tuned rappers and former American Idol winners blather on and on about what the world owes them, which is the usual sex, drugs and rock and roll.
It seems that all my bridges have been burnt…
But you say ‘that’s exactly how this grace thing works.’
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart.
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
— Roll Away Your Stone, Sigh No More
There is, undeniably, hope and new life and spiritual currency in this music; and with the sophomore release, Babel, hopefully that harmonic elixir continues to soothe, comfort, challenge and celebrate living, even if our current cultural moment happens to appear, on its face, hopeless.