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.