For a long time now, massive rock and roll acts have been about either the future or the past.
In the future camp there's U2, with its scientist lead guitarist and spaceship live sets, and Coldplay, with its crowd-wide light-up LED wristbands and synth-rock hybrids; going further back there was the Police, with Sting starring as a colorful Mad Max and also in actual science fiction movies; there was Peter Gabriel and Genesis with the makeup and the drum machines; further back still was Pink Floyd, with its lasers and studio laboratory of echoey future-shock—and of course David Bowie, who has been from the distant future ever since his first single, "Space Oddity," was released in 1969.
In the past camp there is, and seemingly always has been, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen, and the Eagles, and the Rolling Stones. There was Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. There was the Band. The Beatles were about the future and the past both, depending on the period: but they invented the form of massive rock and roll and could always do anything they wished with it. Over and above the past camp there was, and is, Bob Dylan, who both applied for and received a certain slippery mantle from Woody Guthrie, and has hung onto it ever since, even though he went electric right afterwards.
And now there's Mumford & Sons. If Mumford hasn't joined this pantheon of the past, they're certainly on their way. On Sunday night, they won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards for their second album, Babel. And on Tuesday night, they returned to Brooklyn's Barclays Center for a triumphant resumption of their "Gentlemen of the Road" tour. Tuesday's show—their first post-Grammys—was infused with that singular vibe of conquering heroism, but they barely mentioned having won popular music's most coveted award, in their typical understated fashion. Marcus Mumford (lead vocals, guitar, drums) explicitly acknowledged the award only once, saying that they'd had "a bit of a mental weekend."
Mumford & Sons is about the past. They are, gloriously and unabashedly, about the past, like many of the Old Time bands they have now outrun by album and live ticket sales and critical acclaim: Old Crow Medicine Show, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek. There are the vests, the workshirts, the retro lights. The video screen that only runs in black and white, even for the opening acts. There's the tour logo, which looks like it was drawn up by one of the Dalton Gang. There's the omnipresent banjo. The time changes. The lead singer who plays acoustic guitar but also bass drum, as though the band couldn't afford to bring a drummer on tour (though they do bring a magnificent three piece horn section and a magnificent three piece string section as well). There's Marcus Mumford's Depression-era haircut. There's his plain-spokenness: he addresses the crowd, almost exclusively, as ladies and gentlemen, and seems to mean it as earnestly as he means everything he sings. There's the exclusive focus on music, and music only. At a Coldplay or U2 show, the music is a means to an end; at a Mumford & Sons show the screens linger on banjo player Winston Marshall's fingerpicking, or the vibrating strings of Ted Dwane's upright bass.
Most of all there are the songs themselves, which are so drenched in Scripture, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare that they seem to have been dug out of a lost corner of the Library of Congress, thoughtfully re-written by T-Bone Burnett and Doc Watson, and taught to the band at midnight out in a shotgun shack on the Mississippi Delta. The band is about the past.