Mumford & Sons
“Listen to the words,” the young woman behind me stage-whispered to her chatty date. “Are you listening?”
He wasn’t. But I was and so was most of the rapt, standing-room-only crowd that crammed the Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley for the second of three sold-out Mumford & Sons concerts late last month.
This is what I had come for — not just a concert, but a shared experience with a congregation of strangers (and a few friends).
The ONE Campaign, co-founded by music legend Bono of U2, has launched a new platform to promote global messages of social justice, women’s rights, and putting an end to apartheid, war and poverty — just to name a few.
The campaign, agit8, features new covers of famous protest songs throughout history by contemporary musicians ranging from Mumford & Sons to Greenday.
With the stated goal of ending poverty by 2030, agit8 is timed to coincide with the upcoming G8 summit next week. Noting the impact protest music has had on American history, agit8 encourages artists to “get on their soapbox” and amplify “the voices of those who spoke up for social change throughout history.”
Labels can be helpful when, for instance, applied to cans of soup or barrels of toxic waste. But they are less so when affixed to human beings – particularly when labels are meant to summarize, indelibly, one’s spiritual identity.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Marcus Mumford, the 26-year-old lead singer of the wildly successful British band Mumford & Sons, raised the hackles of religious folks (in some quarters) when he declined to claim the “Christian” label as his own.
You see, Marcus is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, who are the national leaders of the Vineyard Church in the U.K. and Ireland, an arm of the international evangelical Christian Vineyard Movement. Last year, he married actress Carey Mulligan, whom he’d met years earlier at a Christian youth camp.
And the music of Mumford & Sons, for which Mumford is the main lyricist, is laden with the themes and imagery of faith – often drawing specifically upon the Christian tradition. They explore relationships with God and others; fears and doubts; sin, redemption, and most of all, grace.
“Are Mumford & Sons as big in America as they are here?” my English friend asked me a year ago over a pint at a pub on High Street in Oxford, England.
“Uh … yea,” I replied, astonished that their popularity was even in question. “They’re huge.”
Turns out that English friend is Marcus Mumford’s cousin, and he eventually got to see how big they are in the states, spending this past summer in Arizona and scurrying over to Colorado for their show at Red Rocks. (I know I’m jealous.)
But has that popularity and success translated into a decent sophomore album? Absolutely. One way to avoid the perilous “sophomore slump” that plagues many musicians and bands these days is to stick to your guns. And that’s exactly what English quartet Mumford & Sons did with their second album Babel.
“The idea was always, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’” producer Markus Dravs told Rolling Stone.
And that’s almost exactly what audiences get on Babel. It’s as if Mumford took all the good things from their first record, Sigh No More, and channeled them into Babel.
Who blames ‘em? Their foot-stomping, banjo-plucking signature folk-rock sound has sent them to the far corners of the earth and back. It also shot Sigh No More up to platinum status, selling five million copies and nominating the band for two Grammys.
Rarely — frankly never before, if my memory is correct — have I literally burst into tears upon hearing a song for the first time. But that is exactly what happened when I listened to Mumford & Sons' new single, "I Will Wait," this morning.
This summer has been a difficult season for my family of origin. My parents are getting older and facing physical challenges that are testing all of our resolve and the core of our spirits. I've been away from my own family in California for a month — the longest I've ever been apart from my son. And it has been ... the word "hard" doesn't quite capture the feeling. Soul wrenching is closer.
In the midst of a roiling sea of emotions, I'm clinging to faith like a life raft, while at the same time wondering desperately what God's up to in all of this tsouris, as my rabbi friend might say.
Perhaps that's why "I Will Wait" put a lump in my throat and filled my weary eyes with hot tears. The author Frederick Buechner says that we should pay careful attention to the things that bring about such reactions, because they are signs that the holy is drawing nigh.