The last time Mumford & Sons performed in the Twin Cities, there were no platinum records, Grammy Awards or movie-star wives attached to their name.
Three years and 15,000 more local fans later, the British folk rock troop has claimed all that and almost single-handedly introduced the banjo to the U.S. suburbs.
On Wednesday, the not-so-merry pickers finally cashed in on all the hoopla that has surrounded them in the long interim, playing a sold-out Xcel Energy Center concert that drew more than 10 times as many fans as their last local gig at First Avenue nightclub in 2010. And what a fanatical crowd it was, too.
With the intimacy of those smaller, earlier gigs clearly lost, the acoustic quartet went for broke with bigger, climactic arrangements and a lot of dramatic, rock-starry posturing. So forget comparisons to those prior Mumford & Sons gigs.
To get an idea of the last time an anthemic, ultra-earnest band from the British Isles played to that many enraptured, hand-waving Minnesota fans on the Xcel Center grounds, you would have to go back to U2’s St. Paul Civic Center gig on its Joshua Tree Tour in 1987. It was that kind of religious experience Wednesday.
“How many of you have never seen us before?” frontman Marcus Mumford asked early in the show — an awkward question, given the fact that his band made fans wait a full year to finally perform here behind its Grammy-winning sophomore effort “Babel.” He added, even more awkwardly, “It’s cute there are so many virgins.”
Looking like a young, mustached Ernest Hemingway, Mumford proved to be no Bono, nor even a Chris Martin (Coldplay). Even compared to other rootsy, banjo-fueled bands, his group fell somewhere beneath the Avett Brothers and Trampled by Turtles in its pacing, song writing and musicality, but well above the Lumineers. So that’s something to cheer.
The concert started out strong with the wistful opener “Lover’s Eyes,” half-played in the dark without a spotlight. That was immediately followed by “I Will Wait” — yes, no waiting for the big hit. From there, though, things quickly got mired in mopey downers (“Whispers in the Dark”) and tender ballads with hopelessly trite, college-poet lyricism (“Where was my fault / In loving you with my whole heart” from “White Blank Page”).
Too many of the songs followed the same pattern: a soft start, then the tempo picked up, then a big, hard-strumming climax. But there was no denying how well that formula worked at certain points, especially in “Little Lion Man,” and the song that followed it, “Lover of the Light.” For the latter, Marcus sat behind the drum kit while the auxiliary horn and string players added a crescendo. It was the set’s rockiest moment aside from when the opening band the Vaccines added electricity in the encore for a cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
The best moments, though, were still the softest, quietest parts, including “Awake My Soul” and the Springsteen cover that kicked off the encore, “I’m on Fire,” which the four core members delivered on a small stage at the other end of the arena from the big stage. It seems Mumford & Co. are still somewhere in between those two stages figuratively.
See Mumford & Sons’ set list at startribune.com/artcetera.