Mumford & Sons Return to Brooklyn with Unabashed & Very Welcome Sincerity Intact

February 10, 2013

Bleeding-heart sincerity is uncomfortable for many people. Makes a weaker person turn away, ashamed for the feeler. Second-hand embarrassment and all that. As if honesty is something to be ashamed of. Be it in a moment of unabashed joy, unimaginable pain or just looking deep into someone’s eyes to deliver an apology or hard-to-swallow truth. It’s easier to turn away and pass judgement instead of attempting to understand. Or respect the torrent of emotion and tribulations involved.

We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.

I first laid eyes on Mumford & Sons in October 2009 when I was one of the few and first American reporters tasked with covering them during the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Their indie buzz was positive (and not divisive) then, and my friend Fred (who accompanied me to the show) corroborated their cachet with a resounding thumbs-up. It had been an important band for he and a former girlfriend, and he was certain I too would walk away a believer.

The Mumfords shared a packed bill that night at the Blue Flowers showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with hypey also-rans The Temper Trap and Golden Silvers. They opened with eponymous album title cut “Sigh No More” and 10 seconds in, I was in tears. I looked at Fred and said, “this is devastating.” I would go on to opine of the show in my review: “…from first blush and foot stomp to the last joyful harmony, an undeniable, unimaginable victory.” Also tellingly, I said this: “Fans of Damien Rice, the Avett Brothers and BRMC’s ‘Howl’ will freak if they haven’t done so already. My larger hope, of course, is that everyone else will, too. That’s right: Mumford and Sons is your new band to believe in, kids.” “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” would own millions of brains (including many of my dearest friends) just months later.

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In February of the following year, in the dead of winter, I was confirmed to design and manage my very first photo shoot with the band at a Victorian-themed bar in Union Square. A brilliant photographer friend of mine agreed to take it on, and the bar confirmed they’d allow us use of the back portion of the place for 20 minutes so the guys could have some peace. No rest for the weary gentlemen of the road, unfortunately, and myriad reasons prevented them from making their initially scheduled flight, and thusly the whole production was cancelled on the day of the shoot. The lighting, the mirrors, the antique furniture, it had all lined up perfectly. All it needed were four English blokes who were just starting to know what royalty checks look like. That night, however, the show would go on at the venerable Bowery Ballroom — their first headlining stop in Manhattan — where they played a barnstormer of an album-release party. Gone forever were the days when you could happen upon ruddy-faced Hemingway-esque lead singer Marcus Mumford outside the front door of the venue next to the band’s gear truck, laughing broadly, enjoying a smoke and beer, and high-fiving anyone who dared approach with well-wishes.

To wit, as I reported then: “I’ve watched plenty of bands achieve ‘full flight’ before. That’s what following U2 around the country for years and admiring Fanfarlo during CMJ will earn you. But the fiery, banjo-wielding Mumford & Sons showed the capacity crowd truly something special last night, and the crowd – a foot-stomping, hands-in-the-air, doin’ a jig, hugging your neighbor mass of winter coat-wearing strangers – sang back every word. ‘Awake My Soul’ became less an album track, and more a pathos as the night wore on.”

Much has been derisively said about the Mumfords’ “alt-folk” tent-revival schtick. As if was actually a falsehood. A come-on. A bit of pretend. As if they were trying to insert themselves into a scene they categorically and factually had no part of, like Vanilla Ice in Miami, purporting to be some kind of banger. Just because they were well-educated and London-based and not rural-dwelling sheep herders, clearly this wasn’t an honest band. But see, the discerning music lover is smart enough to sniff the shit from the soap. Watching the other audience members have profound reactions while taking in Marcus and the boys was no lark — this was a band doing something important, much-needed and significant. Sounding and answering their own clarion call with the fury of an army armed with little more than banjos, dobros, elbow grease and a lot of passion and sincerity.

Sure, audience members can be given to spontaneous celebratory noodling and hoedowns at a Mumford show, just as industrial fans have the Pavlovian desire to slam against each other. This isn’t an emotional display to be critical and suspect of; I reserve much judgement for a human being who can side-eye another human being wrapped up in the unbelievable joy that washes over you when a turn of phrase fixes your heart, leading your outstretched arms to signify “FINALLY,” because someone had the big beautiful gall to say it. Whatever IT is for you.

Last night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, I was blessed to witness FINALLY on a grand, arena-sized scale as thousands sang along to “Babel” (“Cause I’ll know my weakness, know my voice/And I believe in grace and choice”), “Thistle and Weeds” (“Plant your hope with good seeds/Don’t cover yourself with thistle and weeds”) and “Awake My Soul” (“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die/And where you invest your love, you invest your life”) among other joyfully rowdy tunes such as ” I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” ubiquitous wunderkind hit “Little Lion Man” and “Roll Away Your Stone.”

We’re all just trying to be better people, sincerely. Or be better at being people.

I don’t know about you, but lately, I’m tired of hiding. And since Hurricane Sandy wrecked my life up something fierce in late October 2012 (I remain displaced from my downtown Manhattan apartment as I write this), I’ve had no choice but to be alternately sincerely troubled and sincerely hopeful, with sometimes disastrous results the last four months. While looking out at the thousands with arms outstretched in their own private Idahos of FINALLY last night, I closed my eyes, sat still as a rock, and just listened to the newly impassioned soulful voices around me. Everyone has their own Sandy.

Excavation is exhausting, but one of the most necessary tasks we have inherited in this mortal coil. How else can you get to the heart of any matter or complication if your knee-jerk reaction is to turn away from the mud that comes with an uncomfortable truth? This is the question that Mumford & Sons seek to answer, sincerely. –Carrie Alison

Carrie Alison is a former editor, music journalist and publicist. She lives in New York City.

Phil Keaggy: “Yes, There is such a note.”

February 10, 2013

Judging by the size of the crowd in the back room performance area of Nashville’s World Music store, it’s hard to believe that the man taking the stage is a seven-time recipient of the GMA Dove Award for Instrumental Album of the Year and twice nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Album. The seating is limited to sold-out crowd of 100. Performing his one man show is Phil Keaggy, Christian musician and undeniable legend of guitar.

To say that Phil Keaggy is a good guitar player is something of an injustice to the man’s ability. He is commonly ranked among the top three finger-style and finger-picking guitarists in the world, but that is only a portion of what makes the man so incredible to listen to and to watch.
Phil took the stage, wasting no time of the hour and a half he planned for his set, jumping right in to a frenzy of acoustic guitar that can only be described as awe-inspiring. His finger work is almost difficult to comprehend as he strings notes together in a delicate series of tones that resonate to fill the entire room.

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The stage in front of him is filled with pedals, which he continually plays with, using loops and delays to create what any rational person would assume is a quartet of guitarists playing together. Phil used his setup to create rhythm behind his playing, throwing loops of harmonics and pseudo-bass lines into the mix, and even shouting and singing into the body of his acoustic, laying tracks of his voice down with the rest to create his own harmony with. He did this without missing a single beat and kept a smile on his face through the entire show. It’s refreshing to see any performer who seems to enjoy their work quite as much as Phil Keaggy does.

One of the incredible things about Keaggy’s performance is his transformation of a cover. Most artists are well-accustomed to spinning their own take on a famous song, but Keaggy goes far beyond that. Half way through the set Keaggy calls a friend, Mike Pachelli, to the stage to perform a few songs together, leading in with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love.’ It is truly astonishing how Keaggy can take something as comparatively simple as a Dylan song and turn it into something so rich and layered. He utilized the skills and techniques he is known for but did so in such a way that he didn’t overpower Pachelli’s playing. The two blended their sounds together to create something new and complex, but simultaneously recognizable as the original song.

There is a noted playfulness as Keaggy continued the performance. He launched into a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Take My Love With You,” which he prefaced by saying he had “learned this yesterday,” expressing, tongue-in-cheek, that at his age it takes a little while to learn a song, earning ripples of laughter from the audience. His performance of the song, much like his cover of Bob Dylan, was unique, flawless, and showed no indication of unfamiliarity with the song whatsoever. The same unique exploration of the sound was present in a later cover of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
There is emotion in the sound that Keaggy creates. He prefaced a later song, entitled “Let Everything Go,” by telling a short anecdote about riding his bike and chasing hot air balloons on a sunny day. As the last notes of the symphony he alone created floated through the air, it’s almost impossible not to feel as though you yourself are standing in the sun, watching those balloons float away into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring experience, to say the least.

Time flies by when you’re watching someone as enthralling as Keaggy perform. Before we know it, 90 minutes has passed and the set ends. Phil approaches the mike, thanks the audience for attending, and makes a simple request that the crowd help support the Blood Water Mission in their efforts to combat water crises in Africa by buying an album, from which a portion of the sales will go directly to help missions overseas.

Naturally, none of the audience wants to leave without hearing more. The performance is personal, and when the request is made, Phil graciously accepted and approached the mic again to perform a song titled “True Believers.” There is nothing held back. He purposefully and wonderfully combines trapping, high-flying moments and more traditional acoustic styles. Coming back again to his light-hearted nature, on the last chord of the song, his fingers stretched like a circus contortionist over the frets of the guitar, he looked up at the audience, smiled and said, “Yes, there is such a note,” and finished.

At his heart, Phil Keaggy is purely a man of God. His humility onstage and simple enjoyment of the sounds he can make are inspiring enough. It’s fair and fitting to call his sound ‘divine.” If there is any proof that there is a God, it’s that someone so imbued with the message he believes can create something so beautiful as a result. Maybe God decided it was high time to break into the music business. –Jordan Frye, Contributing Writer

Coldplay Inch Closer to U2 in Achieving Authentic Arena Rock Spectacle

July 2, 2012

In the same space where one week earlier the Miami Heat were crowned basketball champions, the jubilant city of Miami welcomed Grammy-winning superstars Coldplay to the American Airlines Arena.

Imagine over 20,000 multi-colored lights flashing all together in a single space. Add to the equation 20,000 voices singing along to worldwide hits. Multiply all this by 100 minutes, and we see why Coldplay is becoming a live band to rival any in terms of stage presence, including their inspiration and ours in Irish rockers U2.

The only British band to be equally successful in Europe and the United States, Coldplay are currently touring to support their latest release Mylo Xyloto across the globe throughout the year.

The stage design is all based on their graffiti theme, with five huge circular digital screens. Special wristbands were given on entry, with the screens telling the crowd to wear them because they were actually part of the show.

The evening began with the Back to the Future theme followed by a huge laser spectacle as Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion entered the stage and started playing “Hurts Like Heaven.” All the wristbands suddenly started flashing in rhythm with the music—wow.

The audience was already warmed up thanks to the brilliant opening performances of Wolf Gang and Robyn. However, next on the list was “In My Place” which made every single person stand up once and for all for the remainder of the show.

New songs from Mylo Xyloto prevailed, mixed with selections from A Rush of Cold Blood to the Head, Viva la Vida, X&Y, and only one from their debut Parachutes. But it was that single song “Yellow” that took the concert to a higher level.

The show was cleverly planned and well-balanced: a ballad followed every three uptempo songs, part of the setlist was played on an X-shaped stage in the middle of the crowd, and closer to the end a little stage at the very back of the stadium hosted the performance of two songs (“Us Against the World” and “Speed of Sound”).

The highlight of the concert took place as the darkness fell: that was when Viva la Vida and Charlie Brown were played. Their 2008 number one hit was fantastic in terms of response and sense of belonging (like when U2 plays “Where The Streets Have No Name”) but “Charlie Brown” was simply a visually spectacular Miami party. Watch to believe at this link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCqLlmEobmo&sns=em

Then followed a never-ending sequence of top-charting songs: “Paradise,” “Clocks,” “Fix You,” and the grand finale of their energetic “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.”

Chris Martin was certainly born to be a performer, running and jumping across the whole stage from the beginning to the very last moment. A talented singer, he also found rest from his antics as he turned to his piano.

Some people may think Coldplay as a rock band are a little too poppy, but the show they put on clearly proves the rock roots of their repertoire, inching them closer to U2 in comparable live show extravaganza. –Jaime Rodriguez, Contributing Writer

The Light and Love of Snow Patrol Live

May 20, 2012

For much of this century, Snow Patrol have provided gifts of a guilty pleasure, ears riding on the arc of prescient guitars and lyrics lifting us into heart-space to sing along to passionate love poems. Critics have noted the band’s ballads compatibility with wedding dances and romantic-comedy soundtracks, so much that they’ve suggested that the film and television producers keep the lads in business. Since seeing them open for U2’s 360 Tour and now again twice (selling-out smaller venues in support of their latest studio release), I’m moved and encouraged how well their gems generate a great live concert experience.

I remember discovering Patrol’s first hit “Run” when the band joined the Live 8 efforts in 2005. Something struck me about this group’s epic sound and honest grace, and I have gobbled each record’s accessible appetizers ever since, so capable are these guys to tempt and satisfy my audio appetite. These are emotional pop-rock anthems that pop in the mouth like candy, that rock the belly and the bones with the balm of perpetual youth, like long rides in the car at high speeds, like an ocean wind that pushes back your hair when the tide comes in. Hearing “Run”  again early in the live set, it still gets me like a force of nature about the nature of fate, with the lyric “as if you had a choice” churning and burning my soul to seize the day.

At the Nashville show in the historic comfort of the Ryman Auditorium, we sat near a family who’d brought their rambunctious-but-tired pre-teen son. Before the show, after he inadvertently kicked me while feigning a nap on the Ryman pews, I whispered disparagingly to my date, “I guess a babysitter is more expensive than a concert ticket these days.” But later in the show I swallowed my words as our younger enthusiast was on his feet and fully immersed in the show, recognizing every song and repeating every lyric. Snow Patrol’s multigenerational reach touches this middle-aged-fanboy-for-life with similar gravitas.

Folks who fill the first few rows at a Snow show beware: both in Nashville and again in Austin at the legendary Stubb’s (the former a seated show, the latter general admission), front-person Gary Lightbody confidently chided people who looked like they may not be having a good time. Calling it his “tough love” approach, the lead singer teased his fans, making smiles mandatory. For us engulfed in an affirmative dance of appreciation, the grins already bent our faces in an automatic response to the gorgeous sounds and sumptuous light show.


Lightbody beckons us with the light, leaves melodies on our bodies and brains to linger for hours. Their latest, Fallen Empires feels like an album required by 2012 yet mired in the irony that it sounds like it could have been released in the 1980s, a compilation of swirling chants and thundering hymns to lay love and hope at the feet of the apocalypse. These tracks treat our aural ailments, lulling listeners with a life force that need not apologize for how it might energize. Snow Patrol’s musical medicine makes a somehow soothing ointment for the oddness of the age.

I’ve noticed critics confuse the band’s sometimes melancholy moodiness with a kind of disembodied dreary detachment. Despite the sadness of certain songs, though, the impulse to joy jolts on. With the dueling dual percussionists propelling us towards the fire, “We are the light” is the sizzling refrain of the recent album’s title track, sung with such power, with Gary’s arms stretched cruciform, calling forth spirits and being for spirit. Contrast this with the pleading prayer that covers “Make This Go On Forever” in aching pathos: “Please just save me from this darkness.” In all cases, Snow Patrol sing about human romance for the service of humanity, admitting fault and enduring failure but finally embracing love fully.

The shadows of Coldplay and U2 inevitably cast endless comparisons around this band’s sound and reputation, but it’s certain in their soaring sincerity that we need not deny or apply the striking resemblance for the band to get us at the gut level. I still call them a guilty pleasure because I find something intrinsically cheesy about the entire package; for some reason, they remind me of why I still like to listen to 70s and 80s pop rock radio stalwarts.

Whether eyes are open or shut as if in love, whether fans are singing along or waving hands as if in church, whether the sound is filling a room or floating to heaven at an open-air gig, Snow Patrol are a sonic powerhouse for hopeless romantics and unpretentious aficionados. We check our indie-artsy game at the door and get into the dripping goodness of the songs. “Chasing Cars” compels lovers and spouses and best-friends to “forget the world” and see “a garden that’s bursting into life.” Let’s waste time listening to Snow Patrol, digging the grace that still gets us every time. —Andrew William Smith, Editor

As of this writing, Snow Patrol are concluding a United States tour, with a summer of European gigs still awaiting. Thanks to Selena Mullinax for the pictures from the Austin show.

Musical Messengers of Love Make Memphis Marvelous

May 11, 2012

Photos © by Bob Bayne/Memphis in May, taken from http://www.facebook.com/bealestreetmusicfestival

Beale Street Music Festival’s reputation preceded itself with the nickname “Memphis in Mud.” Given the rainy tradition, most fans embraced the sunny and unseasonably steamy weather of the 2012 installment. Given the utter marvelous ubiquity of music festivals these days, what makes Memphis special? The lovely lineup is what brought this Bonnaroo regular across the state for the weekend; and how this festival fulfills the Memphis musical legacy already inhabiting the banks of the Mississippi River kept us enchanted for three delightful days.

Needtobreathe followed by Florence and the Machine opened the weekend. The angelic soaring sonic blessing brought by Florence Welch took me towards that festival in the mind and heart. Full moon rising, mild Mississippi breezes caressing the dancers on the lawn—this is a perfect night, recovering from an unseemly hot day.

My Morning Jacket, though, are the band that motivate me more than most to take long rock n roll road trips. After opening with “Circuital,” the setlist dipped into B-sides and back catalog. Whatever the song choices, Yim Yames could sing to me on any Friday night. The soaring greatness of Carl’s guitar part and the sheer emotions of Yim’s vocals on “Gideon” never fail to destroy me.

The outta this world “Outta My System” is one of my clean & sober theme songs (just celebrated three years!), so it’s always great to hear that in a set. On “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me,” Yim’s freaky falsetto yummy yelps give me chills no matter how warm it is. An always brain-and-body-bending “Off the Record” riffs into our reggae-soaked “Phone Went West,” soulfully slinked to perfection. Quite simply, My Morning Jacket have become (or perhaps they always were) a quintessential classic rock band in the deeper sense that teenage boys dream about. Yim Yames is a warm-hearted light-worker, sending furry beams of fuzzy love across galaxies of realities in need of repair and revival. I am honored to have traveled to the sonic sanctuary that he and his mates have created on so many occasions.

As much as Friday fulfilled, Saturday sanctified, first with the rusty interstate rambles of Son Volt, with Jay Farrar fierce as poet-troubadour roots-rock frontman, a John Fogerty-meets-Jack Kerouac lyrics-and-guitar prophet. But it was later Saturday when we left the rock themes for a one-of-a-kind soul revival. The Reverend Green brought a band, his daughters as backup singers, dozens of roses to decorate the crowd with love. Green graced us with a medley of “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God” that slipped so perfectly into “Let’s Stay Together.” Late in the show, he became a human jukebox, power-packing snippets of several super-hits into just a few minutes. Broadcasting brightly on the frequency of love, Green’s soul sensuality and sanctified reality combine seamlessly and sacredly – as it should be. More than any festival I’ve been to since leaving downtown Detroit, the racial diversity in the crowd celebrated a sticker I saw on Beale Street: “Not Black, Not White, Just Blues.” The amazing Anthony Hamilton held the soul vibe high into the wee hours.

Sunday’s sets sealed the weekend in more sweat and sweetness. Under the blazing heat, Chris Robinson (of Black Crowes fame) kicked back for a hot and heavy hour of the hippie blues. Then there’s something that makes a festival a festival. Michael Franti and Spearhead wrapped all of Memphis in a mighty group hug of good vibes. Sticking more to recent tracks mostly from The Sound of Sunshine, Franti feels mellower with his message tilted from justice-movement politics towards straight shots of hope-and-unity. When you’re dancing at a festival, such genuine human warmth serves the politics of the good regardless. Some fans have bemoaned the softening of Franti’s sharper edges, but I welcome this latest evolution and look forward towards his next incarnation as well.

We wrapped up the musical quilt of our weekend with quieter duets of The Civil Wars. What Joy Williams and John Paul White have created evokes emotional reckonings and rustic moods, adding yet more to the alt-folk-roots revival that just keeps blossoming with new beauty. They serenaded our after dinner iced-tea hour and sent us walking towards the car with appropriate contentment to carry back to the middle of our fine musical state of Tennessee. —Andrew William Smith, Editor

 

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