Mumford & Sons (with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, and others) Telluride 2011

A few months ago I came across this rather snarky statement on one of the music sites I haunt pretty regularly:

“I was told recently by someone at Brighton’s The Great Escape Festival – albeit at 4am in the morning and after the consumption of a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol – that however good the new Fleet Foxes album was, he just couldn’t listen to it, because he innately blamed the band for opening the gates to the phenomenon that is now Mumford and Sons. However vodka-blurred and unreasonable this statement may have been, it’s fairly representative of how a lot of people now feel about the insurgence of folk which has found it’s way into the mainstream in the last few years, Fleet Foxes included.”

Granted – (and alcoholic reference notwithstanding) it’s totally anecdotal and probably not 100% representative of everyone writing about music, and certainly not everyone listening to it, but it got me thinking.

Why do we, as music fans, often turn on bands and artists that only weeks (sometimes days) before we were praising to the high heavens? Or is it only critics and bloggers who do this? I don’t think it’s limited to them.

This question and the statement that prompted it reminded me of how many of my college friends approached music back then. Most of the crowd I hung out with worked at the college radio station – mainly because we got plugged into the newest sounds before anyone else could.

Which was definitely part of the appeal. My closest friends and I were still somewhat closed-minded and relatively old school when it came to our tunes: if it wasn’t hard rock (VERY hard rock, usually,) it sucked. That’s not to say all hard rock and metal of the time was worth discovering- the vast majority was not (then or now.) But the rock and roll we truly loved had thought-provoking lyrics and loud guitars. (The two were and are not always mutually exclusive.)

Our cohorts at the station, though, swung the other way entirely: if it was NEW, it ruled. The fewer people who knew about it, the cooler it was.

Even if it sucked. And a lot of it just plain sucked.

Which brings me to my point. If the new bands in question had the extremely poor taste to get even a little bit popular, you should have heard the vitriolic backlash. “Sellouts!” “Their earlier stuff was SO much better. . .” and much worse. In many/most cases, these bands started out shitty and got shittier, but on some rare occasions they learned from early mistakes and actually got better, which often resulted in more record sales, more concerts, more fans and more popularity – and which meant they were instantly uncool to the Newbie-doo set.

I eventually broadened my definition of what was listenable and what wasn’t, but was still pretty selective. While at the station – even though relegated to playing Zappa’s “Rubber Shirt” at 2 AM on a Thursday because the daylight hours were reserved for the likes of The English Beat and Joy Division – I got turned onto some bands that got me well into adulthood. We saw REM at Six Flags and in Athens. (Then again, we also saw the B-52’s, which you can have. I’ll keep my quirky R&R on the Zappa end of the spectrum, thank you.) We saw the Fixx dozens of times, opening for everyone, it seemed. Got to see the Police twice on the Synchronicity tour, their last, in both Orlando and Atlanta. World Party, Elvis Costello, and many others got their start in that era, and we were able to see most of them. They lasted well beyond those times for good reason, and we loved them.

Nearly all of the bands so eagerly embraced by the Newbie-doos were gone after, at most, two albums – and deservedly so. Many that put out 8 or 10 discs should have followed them much sooner, but who was I to dictate?

Take the Hootie & the Blowfish phenomena. This is a band who sold more records at the time (and in a very short window) than nearly everyone except the Beatles. Everyone was buying their stuff, and the first 100 or so times you heard it, it wasn’t awful. Catchy, hooky, harmless Pop music.

But the backlash that erupted when some hitherto unknown and unexpressed critical mass was reached was incredible. The same millions of former fans who’d spent their money on the albums and the shows were dismissing them like they were something stepped-in instead of listened-to. To this day I know people who will throw down some serious negativity on them if ever they’re brought up. It was baffling at the time.

Surprisingly, though, that strong of a turning away by a performer’s fan base doesn’t happen all that often. Witness Madonna, and her younger alter-ego “The Gaga.” Why couldn’t their fans pull a Hootie on ’em and make them go away, too? Madonna is enshrined in the pop music pantheon almost to the same degree as her namesake, when all she really did was dress trashily and shock people with all the quasi-religious imagery in her videos. (Thanks, MTV. Can’t unring that bell.) Gaga is headed for the same pedestal, if she’s not there already.

But I digress, and there are no doubt legions of people who feel as strongly about MaGaga’s contributions to the canon as I do about M&S’s. (But I don’t consider them as providing the same type of experience.)

So here it is some 35+ years later and that “I found them first/don’t get too popular…” attitude still seems to be around. I’m often guilty of it myself.

Of course it’s even easier now to find the hyper-obscure/crudely named/one song/YouTube wonder and claim the find as your own. If you can actually manage to see the band then the deal is sealed: you’re a die hard fan and will defend them to the death (or at least to the pain…) Or you will until the next newest thing comes along. Or until your best friend posts a new link on FB.

So, again, the one quote I pulled with a derogatory reference to M&S is extremely anecdotal. It still strikes me as being spookily similar to the Hootie outbursts. In the last two years or so Marcus Mumford and the boys have been experiencing similar levels of ever-increasing exposure and popularity, (how fun would that train tour earlier this year have been?) and have no doubt laid the groundwork for a slew of folk/rock followers. Many of those bands sound a lot like M&S, many only remind you of them (after all, they’re all playing various versions of New Americana, so similarities are largely unavoidable.) There may come a time when I can’t stand listening to them or their ilk because they’re all over the place, but I really don’t see that happening. The Americana, Newgrass, Folkie, (electric or acoustic,) whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement has revitalized the Indie music scene for me, and dredges up memories from my earliest childhood, listening to old-school Bluegrass before I knew there was such a thing as “cool” or “uncool” bands or performers. I liked it because it was fun to play and fun to listen to. It was hard not to smile when you were listening to that type of music, or better yet playing it, especially when you were doing it with good friends and family.

Still is.

So thanks, Mumford & Sons, and Fleet Foxes, and the Greencards, and Abigail Washburn, and Seryn, and The Head and the Heart, and Laura Marling, and Horse Feathers, and Mt. Desolation, and Frightened Rabbit, and Band of Horses, and all the myriad bands out there playing some strange, personal version of roots music that touches that same place in all of us. (There’s a completely separate story in how M&S and their UK counterparts are responsible in large part for the so-called Americana Revival. . . Roots is Roots, I suppose, no matter where you’re from.)

And maybe the snarky cynics out there will save their vitriol for something or someone else. But they probably won’t. It’s their self-perceived job, just like those knobs at the college radio station saw it to be theirs, to find the next and newest thing – always what’s next. Even if it sucks.

Maybe it’s always been that way with music, and even with literature and other forms of art and entertainment. Maybe that’s how it will always will be. If so, I’ll just keep finding new sources for the stuff I like – old, new, quirky, serious, fluffy, weighty, smart, or none of the above. I don’t know what I’m going to like 10 years from now, but I can be pretty sure that it will include lots of what I’m experiencing now, and some of what I’ve been experiencing all along. And yes, probably some new stuff, too.

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Comments
  1. Jessica Long says:

    Amen. Good music is good music. I heard Mumford & Sons “Awake my Soul” on St Patrick’s Day 2010 on GSU’s college radio station. That was my first taste. I heard them one week ago on Dave.FM. It was a song off the album I wasn’t crazy about, but to hear them on mainstream radio was amazing. I need more than college radio to subsist on. It’s like trying to be vegetarian when everyone around you is eating well done steak. It’s pretty gross what mainstream radio is playing. Please class it up Fleet Foxes. And thank you Marcus and gang for your contribution.

    • soundscryer says:

      I read an article this morning in Rolling Stone about the “demise of Rock radio,” and thought, “Is anyone listening to radio any more?” I can’t stand it- if for any reason I can’t listent to my iPod or a disc in the car, I’d rather hear silence than what’s on most any radiol station I know of.

  2. Aly says:

    I think Telluride is a perfect example of this. It was my first experience in Telluride this past year at the Bluegrass Festival. I’d heard about it before, a few friends had made the trek a couple times, always coming back with incredible stories and it was definitely on my radar (along with a few other festivals) as I planned for my summer. The line-up slowly trickled in, and it was worth considering, even without having an idea that the lineup was going to become so incredible. However, it wasn’t until the final announcement that I had enough to make my decision – Mumford & Sons were going to be there, so I had to be, too. It’s sad that Robert Plant (or any of the other countless legends) didn’t influence my decision as much as M&S did. I’m ashamed of that, now. But I wasn’t alone.
    Sunday night of the festival, it was Punch Brothers, Mumford & Sons then Robert Plant. It started raining during Punch Brothers. And this wasn’t a normal June rain. No, it was a 12,000 ft high in the Colorado Mountains June rain – which essentially equals freezing. My group bared the weather, were right at the front for all three shows, taking pulls of whiskey from the flask to keep warm. The sad part is that, during M&S, the crowd was packed against the fence – there was no moving (thankfully, I suppose – I was cold), but as soon as the boys were gone, so was the crowd. And probably only a third of the crowd that was there for M&S returned for Robert Plant.

    ROBERT FUCKING PLANT!

    Telluride sold out faster this past year than any other year. They also had many more problems that they’d never experienced before – littering, general lack of respect for the festival and the people who had been coming for over 30 years, etc. It was because of Mumford & Sons.

    Being on the other side of the festival, and perhaps because it was my first time experiencing something so beautiful – Telluride is seriously the most amazing place I’ve ever been – but it changed my view on Mumford & Sons, and bands like them. And for a while after I got back from the festival, I wouldn’t listen to them. I somehow managed to find a recording of their set at Telluride online and downloaded it and it wasn’t until I heard it again that I was brought back to those same feeling of euphoria that I felt as I stood there before them in the freezing rain, screaming every word to every song. That euphoria never goes away, even though I’ve listened to the recording probably 100 times since the summer. I don’t know what it is about them – I hate the fans they bring, especially when those fans aren’t respectful, and I don’t like how popular they’ve gotten, but I’m sure it’s because of that euphoric feeling I cannot deny when I hear them that they’ve become so popular.

    Meh, music is such a catch 22, sometimes.

    I like your website though. I just wasted about an hour doing this when I should have been working. 🙂
    Have a lovely day.

    • soundscryer says:

      SO jealous that you got to be at Telluride this year. That’s definitely one of my goals, almost regardless of the lineup.

      I grabbed a few cuts from the festival, too, and have worn them out. Head and the Heart, Sara Watkins (with both Chris Thile and with the Decemberists,) and a great outdoor version of Abigail Washburn’s “Last Train” that looks like it was recorded in the early afternoon one day. Also a version of “Amazing Grace” from a late-night jam with M&S, Abigail, Chris and a whole passel of other folks. Amazing indeed.

      Music can definitely be a Catch-22, you’re absolutely right. At least it can for people who care enough to think/feel about it. Methinks the huddled masses don’t always do that.

      Thanks for the kind words and the drive-by! Hope you have a wonderful day, too, and that I see you back here before too long!

      Best-

      MMD

  3. Aly says:

    My group nicknamed the M&S fans at Telluride “Mummies” for that very same reason. 😛

    Definitely make it a point to go someday, if you can. Words cannot describe the experience, it’s definitely something that has to be lived and shared. My only regret is taking every second I was there for granted – a mistake I WILL NOT make next year, or the year after that, or the year….

    • soundscryer says:

      As soon as the IWF (Independent Wealth Fairy) finds my place and bestows unlimited filthy lucre upon me, I plan to take most of a year off and hit Telluride, Austin, Coachella, Burning Man (maybe,) and any other festival that fits into the schedule. Telluride has always been at or near the top, and I may just suck it up and go next year even if the Fairy still can’t find me.

      By the way, nice touch on the “hitting the whiskey flask to stay warm” part of your experience. That would have made the mummies more tolerable for me, too.

  4. Aly says:

    Tickets go on sale Dec 4, if I am thinking correctly. : )

    Once you find that fairy, send her my way! That’s a great bucket list – I’d love to be able to do something like that someday. And I like how you said Burning Man is a maybe…it seems incredible, but will probably always just be a maybe for me as well. I think it’s all the sand.

    • soundscryer says:

      Will definitely send your way, if she has any magic left.

      That’s one of the reasons that Burning Man’s a “maybe” for me, too. Ditto with Bonnaroo and its camping- though I could probably sleep in the car if I had to.

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