If you took away the backdrop -- the grandiose packed-to-the-gills Greek Theatre on a lusciously warm Friday evening, the ecstatic audience bobbing to the pulsing strobe of crimson light, the shrieks of teenage girls and 40-year-old men -- and put Mumford & Sons on a random street corner in downtown Berkeley, most passersby probably wouldn't even blink an eye.
Clad in hipster-hobo garb, sporting scraggly beards and untamed hair, the exuberant four-piece folk-rockers outfit fit the wet-behind-the-ears street busker image to a tee.
But since their humble Bay Area debut a mere five years ago, when they opened for the openers at San Francisco's tiny Cafe Du Nord, the scrappy collection of young Londoners -- whose three shows at the Greek last week sold out in minutes -- have experienced what can only be described as a meteoric rise to fame.
Mumford & Sons have only two albums under their belt. Never mind that the first went multi-platinum and the second got a Grammy in 2012 for Album of the Year -- the fact of the matter is that the group still doesn't have a ton of numbers to its name. It's a fact that all but guaranteed in the course of a 1 hour 45 minute set, they'd perform just about every song in their arsenal.
Unpredictable, it was not. But to Friday's doting crowd who came to soak up every last harmony, banjo roll, kick drum beat, and world-weary romantic declaration that define the band's anthemic ballads, the finite playlist -- under 20 songs in all -- seemed just about perfect. The show was full of greatest hits from a band that only has greatest hits.
Flanked by an ensemble of fiddlers and trumpet players, the band rotated instruments, playing various combinations of upright bass, drums, acoustic guitar, banjo, and keyboards. They poured their energy into hard-driving deliveries, pounding acoustic strings and keys and stitching together rough-hewn harmonies. Led by frontman Marcus Mumford, who used the full force of his textured, resonant voice to belt out lyrics to crowd pleasers like "Little Lion Man" and "I Will Wait," the group maintained its momentum through the evening. They delivered strong renditions of emotionally-charged songs fit for the soundtracks of epic movies (scenes from Titanic come to mind). For part of the encore, they beseeched the audience for silence and huddled around a single mic, old-timey style, to sing the Bruce Springsteen favorite "I'm on Fire".
The band's stardom is improbable to say the least (one of the main instruments is a banjo, for god's sake!). Mumford & Sons are part of the hipster string band phenomenon responsible for bringing groups like the Lumineers and the Avett Brothers to the fringes of mainstream pop. The nature of the crowd the music attracts is equally unexpected -- more Dave Matthews Band than Phish -- replete with former frat boys and teeny boppers.
Mumford lacks the smoothness of seasoned rockers (Bob Dylan excluded). Their awkward, convulsive movements on stage, the dearth of improvisation, and the limited audience interaction all underscore just how green they are. But the lack of polish, the degree of rawness, and the relative absence of overwhelming ego all seem to add to the charm: the opportunity to see a young group of scruffy balladeers who've hit the big time, but still play like they just stepped off the train.
Mumford & Sons performed at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, May 29-31, 2013. For more information, visit mumfordandsons.com.