Gentlemen of the road: visiting Manchester with Mumford & Sons

As Mumford & Sons hit the road, Steven Loftin heads to Manchester to find out just how one of the biggest bands on the planet are making huge venues into (relatively) intimate spaces.

You know what they say, Dear Reader. Bangers come in all shapes and sizes. They’re not all gleaming poptastic gems, either. In their own way, every band has a banger in them.

Yep, even Mumford & Sons. Don’t try and pretend otherwise just because it makes you sound cooler. Four ‘lads’ from London who brought folk music twanging into the mainstream with their knockout debut ‘Sigh No More’, ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘The Cave’ are – let’s be absolutely clear here – Proper Bangers.

Since then, they’ve gone large, upsizing from the only-relative intimacy of their pre-breakthrough buzz to becoming a world-conquering arena band.

Which is why we’re up in Manchester; to not only catch up with the group but to also see what all the fuss is about. On a run of shows that were initially planned for late last year but ended up delayed due to a logistical issue with the new setup, we’re promised it’ll be worth it.

But first, in the depths of the concrete labyrinth that is Manchester Arena, tucked away down one of the faceless corridors, we’re in a dark, velvet blue room to chat to two of Mumford’s storied children; double-bass toting Ted Dwane and banjo-extraordinaire Winston Marshall.

Gentlemen of the road: visiting Manchester with Mumford & Sons
Gentlemen of the road: visiting Manchester with Mumford & Sons

So, how do Mumford & Sons make folk music into this arena-busting event that it’s become?

“At the beginning, it was the challenge that we set out for ourselves was how to make it as intimate as the gigs we’d always done up until that point,” Winston begins thoughtfully. “And that remains the ambition, which is actually why we’re in the middle and as close to that amount of people,” he mentions, alluding to tonight’s all-encompassing stage setup.

“That’s probably born out of the original ethos and intention of the band – to be an intimate experience. At the beginning of the band’s career, when we were leaving the pub circuit, we did that by doing festoons, and that continued into our first arena shows – we actually had festoons that went up to the back of the room, we did that at festivals, and that did a great job of bringing people in. “

All is well in attempting to keep this connection between band and crowd alive, but it also boils down to the group needing to keep themselves invested in the live show. The sheer number of gigs that Mumford have played is a testament to their durability, but when they’re the ones taking to the same rectangular space night after night well, can you blame them for wanting to shake things up?

“It’s a whole new challenge being surrounded and figuring out how to perform,” Ted says of their new venture. “We’d always done this four in a row thing, which always felt powerful, and was nice to perform, but to leave your comfort zone I think is something we generally embrace.

“This has been wicked, we’ve only got a handful more shows in this format actually, and then we’re going to take things that we’ve learned from doing the show this way and incorporate them into the next production. It’s important not just to repeat yourself.”

Gentlemen of the road: visiting Manchester with Mumford & Sons

Obviously, any show at Manchester Arena is going to bring some more weighty thoughts to mind, with Mumfords playing only a couple of weeks after the second anniversary of the 2017’s bombing. “Here [the arena] is a poignant example. I’m always struck with the importance of music, generally,” Ted muses. “And the event’s like any gig where people can commune over something that isn’t reliant on cultural belief or politics, so to invite people in, we’ve always tried to have our arms as wide open as possible to anyone that would like to enjoy it.

“That is the whole idea, we’re musicians – we don’t have huge philosophical ideas, well we do, but that’s not what tonight is about. That’s almost what makes it – it’s nothing specific, it’s just a reason to come together and be a human being, as soon as you begin to give it deeper point than the simple thing it is.”

A stage slap-bang in the centre of Manchester Arena, four ridiculous sized screens face the heavens, so no one misses out. From the moment ‘Guiding Light’ creeps in, it’s a non-stop sing-along affair. Even when the time comes for the encore, there’s no hiding; the band have to make their way through the crowd to get to and from their brief respite, with fans clambering to get a look.

Of course, not all of tonight is based upon stage set-ups. A sentence we’d never really thought we’d be typing – Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello joins Mumford and Sons to cover Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. It’s a tender moment that bides its time before striking sharp with Tom doing what he does best. As confetti – and we don’t say this lightly, given the sheer volume of it – thunders down from the blackened heavens, second-album mega-hit ‘I Will Wait’ leaves sing-alongs pouring out of the exits.

Nothing rings truer in these final moments than one of Ted’s earlier sentiments; “When you walk out on stage – you have to show up. We’re not a band who just phone it in. We want to give [the crowd] as much emotional joy as we can.”

Taken from the August issue of Dork, out now.

Words: Steven Loftin

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