Mumford & Sons took the stage in Camden, N.J., for the second straight night Feb. 17 and played what would be the last stop on their North American East Coast tour. The date was added after their first scheduled show at the Susquehanna Bank Center sold out in a matter of seconds. The band, which won the 2013 Grammy for Album of the Year with “Babel,” played selections from both its first and second albums, pleasing the crowd with fan favorites but offering few real surprises.
The doors to the Susquehanna Bank Center opened precisely on time — 6:30 p.m. — but with some fans having been outside in the 30-degree waterfront weather for more than two hours, 6:30 was too late. This began a mad rush for the pit, where fans thawed out as they waited in front of a narrow stage cluttered with multiple drum kits, countless guitars and even a cello.
As the first opening act took the stage, the reason for the clutter became clear. HAIM, a group of three almost identical-looking young women and their male drummer, took to the right half of the stage, leaving the left half for the second opener. With their long, straight, middle-parted brown hair of varying shades and clothing reminiscent of something in a 1970s Polaroid, their sound packed a serious surprise. Entering without a word, they started with a guitar riff so heavy that I wondered if I was at the right concert. Near the end of their set, they thanked Mumford & Sons for allowing them to tour together.
“We feel like 16-year-olds with braces when they’re around,” HAIM bassist Este Haim said before doing a lispy impression of a rabid Mumford & Sons fan.
With vocal harmonies like The Cranberries and jam sessions like The Black Keys, HAIM was a stark contrast to the second opener, Ben Howard. A crowd-pleaser, Ben Howard was already a favorite for many in the audience. Halfway through his set, a fan offered him a cheesesteak, to which he responded, “The last time I had one of those, it killed me. It’s practically my whole weight in a piece of meat.” If HAIM served as the rock aspect of Mumford & Sons’ sound, then Ben Howard was their mellow, folk side. Putting the two acts together would form the perfect equation for Mumford & Sons.
Promptly after Howard’s set, a large red curtain fell over the stage. On it was Mumford & Sons’ “Gentlemen of the Road” logo, which shielded the entire stage from the audience’s view. With the first few notes of Mumford & Sons’ “Babel,” the curtain was lifted to reveal the band and an extraordinary stage setup. Gone was the narrow stage of the opening acts, replaced by a fantastic series of lights, platforms and the boys themselves — Marcus Mumford on guitar and kick drum, Ted Dwayne on bass, Winston Marshall on banjo and Ben Lovett on keys.
At first the band performed with minimal interaction with the audience. The friendly banter that fans had gotten used to during the opening acts had disappeared, and in its place was a sense of awe and downright religion — you wouldn’t dare call out to a priest during your church service, and at first, Mumford & Sons’ set was much the same. After a few songs, however, the venue’s tone shifted as a clean-shaven Marshall, known among fans for his scruffy beard, heckled the audience: “So tomorrow’s a holiday? Presidents’ Day? We don’t have Prime Ministers’ Day in England. That’s probably because we hate them all! You’ve got good presidents, don’t you?”
However, softer songs such as “Timshel,” “Awake My Soul” and “Thistle & Weeds” would have been vastly improved if the spirituality had not been broken. Audience members called out and cheered during pauses in the band’s soaring harmonies, which killed the effect at times. As fans carried on, the band’s irritation became almost painfully obvious. “This one’s another quiet song,” Mumford emphasized. The audience didn’t take the hint.
Mumford & Sons didn’t need to do much to get the audience going — their mere presence was enough for cheers of adoration, most of which went largely ignored aside from a thumbs-up from the always grinning Dwayne. As such, the Camden audience was much better suited for the band’s louder, faster songs, as they stomped, clapped (though sinfully off beat) and sang to favorites like “Little Lion Man,” “I Will Wait,” “Roll Away Your Stone” and “Winter Winds.” The crowd went wild for the band’s signature gimmicks: During the encore’s “The Cave,” Dwayne lifted his double bass into the air as Marshall grinded into his banjo and Lovett head banged at his keyboard. Being the crowd pleaser that he is, a beer-guzzling Marcus stood on a platform in the photographer’s pit and stuck out his tongue as he played a few times throughout the set.
Aloof as they were in terms of fan interaction during their roughly two-hour show, Mumford made a point of thanking the audience for the kindness that the English band has been shown in the U.S.
After announcing that they’d be ending their New Jersey show with a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, they invited HAIM back onstage. Combined with their six additional brass and string players, the stage became a mess of sound that was, at times, unrecognizable. Nevertheless, the 15-minute cover of “Atlantic City” was fun and boisterous, not a bad way to end a concert whose finer points were those filled with fast, loud sounds.
Locking arms to form a chain of musicians that practically stretched from one end of the stage to the other, Mumford & Sons ended their show and East Coast tour with a series of bows led by Mumford and a boot-stomping count off.