Mumford & Sons shows instrumental flair in Surrey

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      At Holland Park on Friday, May 24

      It's a clear summer night and the sun is setting somewhere west of Vancouver Island, with a few cotton-candy clouds turning pink in its lingering glow. Jetliners circle overhead, and the occasional crow, and impossibly green trees sway slightly in a breeze that still retains a memory of spring. On-stage a band is playing, and people are passing drinks from hand to hand, and a kid in a tie-dyed T-shirt is spinning in mad circles around his mom.

      But wait! This is not Jericho Beach Park, and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is still weeks away. Nor is it David Lam Park, which will be the site of outdoor revels a month from now once the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival hits. And it's not Malkin Bowl, perhaps the prettiest roofless concert locale on the West Coast.

      Heck, we're not even in Vancouver.

      We're in Surrey.


      The word is out: in Holland Park, a leisurely three-minute walk from the King George Skytrain station, the previously most reviled of the mid-range burbs now has an undeniably pleasant alfresco concert venue. No, it's not Stanley Park or Kits West—but only the mountain views are missing.

      The park has been used for public events before, most notably the annual Fusion Festival, but this was its first big rock show—and it was bigger than anyone had anticipated, with approximately 25,000 listeners turning out to hear surprised headliners Mumford & Sons, Brit-soul singer Michael Kiwanuka, and nondescript indie rockers Mystery Jets.

      It was obviously a good fit, and not just because the Mumford boys make a brand of family-friendly, folk-flavoured rock in which all gestures are writ large. It's more that both Surrey and the band have blown up big-time in no time at all.

      Not that long ago—as recently as Mumford & Sons' Vogue Theatre appearance, in 2010—the band was wet behind the ears and decidedly ragged, an acoustic quartet with anthemic aspirations. Now, assisted by strings, a three-piece horn section, a second drummer, and world-class lighting design, the group is a hyperpolished touring juggernaut and those anthems boom out with assurance.

      If anything's been lost, it's that handy "neo-bluegrass" tag. Yes, Winston Marshall's banjo still came to the fore on hit number "I Will Wait", but otherwise the music is now more like progressive pop. Coldplay comparisons are justified, but Peter Gabriel might be another reference point, especially on the horn-heavy "I Gave You All" and one of the few less-than-optimistic numbers in the Mumford catalogue, "Thistle & Weeds". Lead singer Marcus Mumford, an unlikely frontman with his everyman looks and seedy mustache, shares more than just his husky vocal timbre with the former Genesis frontman; he's also got a penchant for songs, other than the doom-laden "Thistle & Weeds", that insinuate something almost truculent beneath their optimistic veneer.

      Resilience and optimism are perhaps useful qualities in this age of corporate bullying. Could this be a clue to Mumford & Sons' appeal?

      That's maybe going too deep. On Friday night, though, it was plain to see that the band also thrives on changing up its sound. One of the Sons must be a smart arranger, for every song was distinguished by a unique instrumental touch: some Burt Bacharach piano on "Lover of the Light", a keening fiddle solo on "Ghosts That We Knew", the silver-band brass of "Winter Winds", and Mumford's own insistent kick-drum rhythm on "Below My Feet". And yet there was one constant: Ted Dwane on both upright and electric basses. His subtle, supportive excellence anchored all of this sonic diversity in an earthy irresistible pulse.

      And if Dwane is the band's unsung hero, the late Levon Helm might be its tutelary spirit. There's something of the Band in Mumford & Sons; it's most notable when Mumford himself puts down his guitar to sing from behind a minimalist drum kit, but it's also there in the ragged-but-right group vocals and the willingness to switch sonic genres, sometimes in mid-song. So it was appropriate that the night ended with a Nawlins-flavoured cover of "The Weight", with the lush-voiced Kiwanuka back to lend vocal support.

      Mumford & Sons might be on the verge of megastardom, but there are real roots behind its unanticipated success. Surrey seems to be effecting a similar transformation—from ugly suburb to urban centre—and in Holland Park it's acquired an outdoor concert venue and meeting place that's a pleasure to behold.



      Brent Postlethwaite

      May 25, 2013 at 12:31pm

      I have lived in Surrey for 30 yearsand have always felt the negatives have always been far outweighed by the quality. The bad reputation has never been deserved. Skytrain imported much of what people fear about North Surrey. People love to mock us and we bear it with humour. it's a big city and it was about is fair as comparing Kits to Hastings and Main. So now the light goes on and you think something is different. Only the public image has changed so stop turning your noses up at the mention of our home and perhaps we will invite you over.


      May 25, 2013 at 2:17pm

      Surrey is the future - step one complete

      Max Stelmacker

      May 25, 2013 at 4:01pm

      With a steady proliferation of boom box stereos pouring out their malcontents 24/7 (and I do mean 24/7) down Surreys main arterial roadways and otherwise quiet side streets, being host to M&S's is a real boon and blessing to Surrey. So kudos to whomever wrangled the gig and scored them to perform Holland Park.
      Little Lion Man strikes me as a song for the ages and the writer/singer even says its about an unhappy period in his life (although he wont say exactly what)-, its true Surrey has been through an awful lot of changes and growth spurts over the years. I think when many people think of Surrey, the long dominant thought is that of the reputation Surrey Central Station has acquired over the years, recently. In case anyone didn't know, the Surrey Central Skytrain station is a leisurely 60 second ride away from King George where M&S's performed.
      But if you can seek to blame one thing for a City having an actual armpit, you can sure blame the Skytrain station itself as well as prevalent homelessness problem plaguing the area nearby.
      Big events like the International World Music Marathon (which returns again this year) and this latest concert are welcome distractions but it can only be good for Surrey if people keep reminding each other about its past which hasn't been always rosy. The shadow cast by previous title holder of car theft capital of North America still reaches, and as long as the City distances itself from such muck and stays ahead the future is all that needs concerning. At least one sports writer has been outspoken enough to suggest what the City needs is an actual sports stadium which can then double for concerts and conventions. But where to put it? Where will the land/space come from?


      May 25, 2013 at 6:57pm

      Mumford & Sons may have commercial success but their music is very mediocre.


      May 25, 2013 at 10:46pm

      The venue is too flat. Couldn't see the stage at all. Might as well have hung out outside the venue and listened for free. Cell phones didn't work. Blankets were not allowed in even though it wasn't mentioned in the warning email and wasn't on the sign outside the venue stating the items that were banned. Got mine back though, I guess the homeless thought it was ugly

      Beth A

      May 26, 2013 at 1:47am

      shocked the writer referred to Wynton Marsallis as Winston!

      Martin Dunphy

      May 26, 2013 at 2:26am

      Beth A:

      Ahem, that was Winston "Marshall".
      Alex Varty would never commit that error, I assure you.


      May 26, 2013 at 7:02am

      somewhere WEST of Vancouver Island? Huh?


      May 26, 2013 at 8:48am

      But in Surrey??? Why?? im suprised nobody got shot!


      May 26, 2013 at 9:55am

      Holland park is a great venue to hold an event but definitely not one to hold a concert. As somebody else posted, the ground is incredibly flat and sound does not carry well. Although Mumford and Sons is a huge band and have a massive speaker setup, it just didn't sound right. Marcus is just as good live as he is in the studio but the acoustics in holland park did not do them justice!