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May 22, 2017

How hard-strumming Mumford & Sons has defied the critics

Doubted early on for never becoming 'popular with a banjo,' the British band has an upcoming sold-out show at the BB&T Pavilion

You never know what’s going to break in the world of music. While covering South By Southwest in 2009, I stopped by to catch an unknown band with a bit of buzz out of the United Kingdom performing at a day party in the back of an Austin pizza shop with about 30 jaded, badge-sporting music journalists and a few local music fans. Every year at SXSW, there are a bunch of bands from London, but there was something different about this act.

When Mumford & Sons kicked into “The Cave,” it was evident that the quartet had potential, but if anyone at Red House Pizzeria said on that sunny afternoon that they were witnessing a band which would reach superstar status, they were lying.

“No one expects you to become this popular with a banjo,” multi-instrumentalist Ben Lovett said before performing at South By Southwest in 2012.

Lovett couldn’t be more correct. Who would ever guess that a band delivering folk-rock and bluegrass-style music on banjo, double bass, and kick drum would become one of the most popular bands in the world?

But Mumford & Sons, who will perform Thursday, May 25 at a sold-out BB&T Pavilion, are massive. Earlier this month, U2 invited Mumford & Sons and Eddie Vedder to join the iconic rockers onstage during their Seattle show. When a band has Bono on speed dial, you know the act is in a good place.

Mumford & Sons doesn’t need validation from fellow superstars. “Babel," the band’s 2011 release, sold more than 600,000 copies in its first week. 2015’s “Wilder Mind” topped the UK albums chart and the Billboard 200.

So many recording artists sound like Mumford & Sons, such as Bear’s Den, Passenger and Vance Joy. The Lumineers bear a sonic resemblance to Mumford & Sons. Lumineers leader Wesley Schultz downplayed the connection.

“Both bands have the same basic elements,” Schultz said. “Both bands use acoustic guitars. Both of us do some shouting and both of bands are indebted to folk music.”

To the Lumineers credit, they formed in 2005, two years before there was a Mumford & Sons. Vocalist-guitarist Marcus Mumford and his bandmates, vocalist-guitarist Winston Marshall and vocalist-bassist Ted Dwane, didn’t invent the sound, but the English band helped make folk popular.

The banjo has appeal. Local music fans witnessed the rise of Marah 17 years ago, courtesy of their acclaimed second album, “Kids in Philly.” A number of the catchy songs were driven by the banjo. “There is something about the instrument,” Marah’s Dave Bielanko said. 

“The sound of the banjo strummed is amazing.”

Not only are Mumford & Sons gifted, the word is that the members of the band are good guys. The Avett Brothers, a successful act cut from the same cloth as Mumford & Sons, gives Marcus Mumford and co. the thumbs up.

“They’re great guys,” Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford said. 

“They’re so nice and easy-going. You hear about guys in bands who are crazy successful and that they’re not the nicest people, but that’s not so with Mumford & Sons. We’ve spend some time with them and it’s always been fun. But nobody would know about them if it wasn’t for their music. 

"I know there are some bands out there like Mumford & Sons, but if you put their music together with how they are personality-wise, off-stage, there’s nobody like them. They’re fun backstage, and when they perform live, there’s a certain intensity that you have to love.”

Mumford & Sons had that intensity when they played the backyard of the pizza shop in Austin. It didn’t matter that some people were checking their phones during “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man.” Mumford & Sons played hard then and the act is doing the same thing now while packing amphitheaters.