As Toronto marches forward in its bid to institutionalize itself as a "music city," fans of beat, harmony and melody reap the benefits of a summer of festival here. If it is the Replacements' reunion at Riot Fest one weekend, it is Drake's OVO Fest (with its clown car of hip-hop stars) on another.
The city is still without a signature mega festival, though – something along the lines of Osheaga, Lollapalooza or anything vaguely exotic-sounding ending in an "a." Mumford & Sons played both of those events this summer, as well as Glastonbury, and its own travelling Gentlemen of the Road Stopover, including the successful edition this past weekend in Simcoe, Ont.
With all this festival hoopla in mind, the concept of a simple Mumford concert at Molson Amphitheatre seemed almost quaint in comparison (the 16,000 fanatics and attending on a Monday night notwithstanding). But despite the band's banjo-and-beard folksiness, there is absolutely nothing downsized about Mumford & Sons. The acoustic halloo is roaring, 10-storey and crazy with zeal. It is a tidal wave of plucked and plunked-hard crescendo music – inescapable.
This Grammy-winning English band is all in, all the time. Monday's well-received show began with a dark stage, and Marcus Mumford singing in his intense tremble, "I can't see the others in my life." Well, it's pitch black, man.
I expected the lights to rise after the first verse, but Mumford continued in the dark right through the first chorus: "Let me die where I lie, 'neath the curse of my lover's eyes." At that point the band struck its giant strum and the lights flashed big to life. The screens to the left, right and over top showed these poetic shouters in black and white only, to emphasize the seriousness at hand. The crashing and ebbing went on all night, but my bodice was already ripped wide open by the time things got to I Will Wait: "So tame my flesh and fix my eyes, that tethered mind free from the lies."
I've met up with Mumford & Sons on a couple of occasions. They're likable blokes, and, despite the mammoth sales of the albums Sigh No More and Babel, they're not too big for their vests at all. But the music, to casual listeners, is just too much – too considered, too formulaic, too vehement. I do give them full marks for not artisanally weathering their folk sounds, though.
Now, Drake at OVO rolled out his A-list of artists expertly and teasingly. He's quite the candy man, with a smooth, charming command. One fan told me that by the time Kanye West appeared, she was walking zombie-like and spellbound toward the stage. The Mumfords, on the other hand, just ram away at their audience.
For one of the encore songs, the Mumfords chose a cover of Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire, an exercise in quiet, simmering tension that never boiled over. Its artfulness is in its restraint – something the band obviously admires, but has decided not to incorporate much into its own material.
The encore also included a larky cover of AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long. A dude from the audience was brought on stage to handle the lyrics: "Cause the walls start shaking, the earth was quaking, my mind was aching." I could relate, for Mumford & Sons produce much the same upshot.