Monday, 16 February 2009

Mumford and Sons + Alessi's Ark @ Reading South Street Arts Centre

The past nine months have seen numerous commentators, including Breaking More Waves, identify the apparent death of the so called landfill indie bands and the rise of the often keyboard or electro wigging female solo artist. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that there was no other genre producing anything of merit. Ever since the Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong debacle, record labels have stopped looking for four boys with skinny jeans and guitars.

But the future is not just about girls with keyboards. Step forward four manly souls with double bass, kick drum, accordion and banjo in hand. Step forward also a girl with a whimsical baby doll voice and an acoustic guitar. Tonight Reading plays host to not one, but two of the artists that Breaking More Waves listed as Ones to Watch in 2009; Mumford and Sons and Alessis Ark, all for just a fiver.

By now it seems that the London new-folk scene which these artists are associated with is well enough labelled that it has become an accepted hip genre of its own. Music once sneered at by anyone under the age of thirty is now being celebrated and adored by young and old alike. There are more pretty girls in check shirts here than there are woollen sweater wearing bearded men drinking real ale.

Alessi’s Ark is the main support tonight. The last time Breaking More Waves watched a support band in this venue was almost twenty years ago. That support was a little known act from Oxford called Radiohead. And whilst Alessi’s Ark are unlikely to ever achieve the same level of commercial success, Alessi Laurent-Marke is equally enjoyable as Radiohead were then. Coming across like an otherworldly hippy chick, Alessi is a finger biting, twitching, kooky sort of girl who is prone to whispering such statements as “This is the nicest room ever,” and charming the crowd with her wide eyed innocence. Alessi is blessed with a sweet voice and a collection of songs that veer between delicate folk and a gently rocking nature, sounding not far removed from a female fronted version of The Thrills. Occasionally the melodies are endangered by the bands over instrumentation, sounding better when there is space within the music, but Alessi’s voice and personality shine through.

“We’ve been playing lots of pub gigs, but this is like a show,” comment Mumford and Sons, appreciating the number of people who have turned out to see them in a venue somewhat bigger than many of the others they have been playing on this current tour. It’s easy to see why so many have bothered.

Much has been made of Marcus Mumford’s voice, and with good reason; it has a gravely crackling emotive quality that stands out. There are hints of the tone of both Chris Martin and Dave Mathews, but with a greater sneering resonance. This vocal and the near perfect harmonies his band deliver are a winning formula. To secure victory even further the melancholic melodies and stomping hoe downs that Mumford and Sons produce mix perfectly with their living and breathing folk, county and bluegrass instrumentation to sound almost life affirming. Take White Blank Page which builds into a big pirate sea shanty, or Roll Away Your Stone which is a manic foot stomping and banjo thrashing bonanza of the highest order. Both songs receive huge applause.

To contrast with the exhilarating feeling these songs invoke, the bands lyrics are sometimes of rather darker stuff; “I won’t let you choke on the noose around your neck,” sings Marcus on next single The Cave. “Death will steal your innocence, but it will not steal your substance,” he rasps on another new song. If this all sounds rather heavy, it is thankfully tempered by the bands sense of humour. “All of our songs are about football,” announces Country Winston, their banjo player at one point with a cheeky grin on his face.

Mumford and Sons succeed because they display musical honesty, talent and cohesiveness amongst a collection of damn good songs. The only minor criticism is the band do not yet consider themselves big enough to have a set list, making up the set as they go along. With more structure and thought to the order of the songs the set could swell to even greater things. The huge and lengthly applause at the end of the show is testament to the fact that, irrespective of this, Mumford and Sons are a superb live band. They are proof that there is more to music than just electro disco girls.

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