All Aboard: Mumford & Sons Play ACL Taping During Austin Stop on Railroad Revival Tour

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When “Austin City Limits” producer/host Terry Lickona introduced Mumford & Sons at the band’s Monday-night taping session, he said he’d been trying for a year to get them on the show. But a year ago, a ticket to that taping might not have been as huge a score as it appeared to be on this night, even though the show’s new ACL Live at the Moody Theater venue is supposed to hold 800 fans per taping, instead of the 320 its old University of Texas Communications Building digs did.

Wait – make that “at least 800.” The venue has a capacity of 2,750, and even though ACL officials keep saying tapings are going to be kept to the lower figure to preserve intimacy, so far, that hasn’t happened. The young British folk/rock/country/bluegrass heroes clearly had a larger crowd – most of which was forced to stand around the low stage in an arrangement that may look good on TV, but totally removed any vestige of the living-room feel the old studio had. The “haves” – those with mezzanine or center balcony tickets – couldn’t mingle with the floor-bound have-nots, either.

So when season 37 of “Austin City Limits” hits PBS viewers’ TV screens, they’ll see fans experiencing a performance in a theater with cameras, not a TV studio. There’s a difference.

Perhaps not to the band, though. On the tail end of their Railroad Revival tour, the London lads’ energy didn’t flag for a second. Vocalist/keyboardist Ben Lovett jumped around the stage like a restless boxer in-between turns at his piano, as if he couldn’t wait to hit the next notes. At one point during “Roll Away Your Stone,” his rhythmic stomps served as the song’s percussion. During opener “Below My Feet,” a new song, bassist Ted Dwane literally marched in place, as if he were in boot camp. A set list change bumped the original opener, “Sigh No More” – the title track of their debut album and one of their most recognizable songs. But “Below” provided a fine exhibit of the close harmonies and dramatic swells they execute so expertly, and no one grumbled afterward about not hearing “Sigh.”

It would be tough to grumble about songs like “Timshel,” a stunning tune sung almost completely in a cappella harmony. A song that could work equally well at weddings or funerals, it’s beautiful.

Before playing “Little Lion Man,” the how-will-they-air-that? number that earned the band a Best Rock Song Grammy nod (they also got a Best New Artist nomination), singer/guitarist Marcus Mumford admitted he freaks out about TV cameras. This from a guy who had to perform on the Grammy Awards broadcast with like-minded back-to-acoustic gang the Avett Brothers and Mr. Bob Dylan. Reminding himself to just think of it as another gig, Mumford brought out a horn section that included Austinite Ephraim Owens and moved to a drumkit for “Lover of the Light,” another new song.

Filled with energy and soul, it epitomized roots music – and their roots go deep, to age-old British-Celtic lilts and dirges, Carolina mountain hollers and everywhere in-between. With banjo/dobro player Country Winston Marshall’s work augmented by Cadillac Sky banjoist Matt Menefee and fiddle by Menefee’s bandmate, Ross Holmes, the band pulled out “Awake My Soul” and “Cave” before deciding at the last minute to encore with the Neil Young nugget, “Dance, Dance, Dance.”

Clearly, had a blast, cracking jokes and reveling in the joy of being adored for doing what they love. Even If those in the theater couldn’t exactly see it, they could hear that joy just fine. And were happy for the chance to share it.

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