Most Vanderbilt students spent their Friday night hemmed inside the metal gates of Rites of Spring, fist-pumping to EDM music on a beer-soaked Alumni Lawn. But just two miles away, another more prominent (though less beer-soaked) concert took over Bridgestone Arena: Mumford & Sons “Arrow Through the Heartland” tour, which is the newest step in the band’s attempted evolution from folk quartet to full-fledged indie rock band.
As showtime approached, fans queued up outside the concession stands, trying to purchase their food and drinks before opener Blake Mills kicked off the concert. Managers flagged down attendees purchasing bottled drink, explaining that the headliner has a clause in its contract that prohibits bottle caps being taken into the arena, so concessions staff must remove the caps before surrendering the bottles. Apparently, the band has previously had issues with drunk fans pelting them with bottle caps. What Mumford asks for, Mumford receives.
The entrance gates and will call windows were plastered with signs proclaiming “SOLD OUT SHOW: no more tickets will be available or released.” However, many seats inside the arena still remained empty when singer-songwriter Blake Mills took the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. Backed by an enormous banner emblazoned with Mumford’s tour logo, Mills played for a scant 35 minutes, making it clear that Mumford & Sons was the real attraction of the night. “I can‘t tell you how hard it is to get this many people who care about music instead of some other bulls—t,” Mills told the sitting crowd, explaining that’s why he loves playing for fans of Mumford.
The crew took longer than Mills’ set — 45 minutes in all — to set up for the headliner. Attendees took the opportunity to refill their beers and finish their food, and concertgoers packed into the standing-room-only area milled around restlessly as the wait lengthened. Finally, just a few minutes before 9 p.m., the lights dimmed and the crowd roared as Mumford & Sons took the stage.
The band’s folk-tinged rock sound is far from the glossy pop songs and grand anthems that other Bridgestone shows such as Taylor Swift and The Grateful Dead are famous for. However, as the band segued from their driving first song “Snake Eyes” to their rootsy acoustic hit “Little Lion Man,” the crew ripped down the logo banner to reveal dozens of flashing light panels hanging from the ceiling, which dazzled concertgoers’ eyes throughout the night.
Mumford & Sons switched back and forth between their older folk hits and more rock-influenced material off their newest album “Wilder Mind.” As the band played the record’s lead single “Believe,” attendees spontaneously held up their cellphone lights, surrounding the dark arena with a belt of unwinking stars. “We f—king love this city. This is the greatest city in America!” lead singer Marcus Mumford exclaimed at the end of the song. He then joked that the band previously sent banjo player Winston Marshall to Nashville for three months to re-learn how to play the banjo.
Arena shows are known for their surprise guests, and Mumford & Sons delivered by inviting back Blake Mills and his band as well as Grammy-nominated banjo player Noam Pikelny (of bluegrass band the Punch Brothers) for a stringy rendition of “Awake My Soul.” During the bridge, the band gave both guests long instrumental solos on the guitar and the banjo, respectively. “Back to boring old Mumford & Sons,” Mumford quipped as the guests left the stage to the audience’s enthusiastic cheers.
Mumford himself surprised concertgoers during “Ditmas,” hopping down from the stage and walking through the lower bowl and into the standing crowd. Attendees took several seconds to realize that Mumford had left the stage — he kept singing without pause as he walked around, fans reaching out to touch him. He then ran back to the stage and caught his breath during a zealous piano intro to “Dust Bowl Dance.” The band ended their regular set in true arena rock fashion, with shredding guitars, crashing cymbals and sparklers raining from the ceiling.
The audience patiently waited for the band to come back for the encore, and the many who stayed were rewarded with 45 more minutes of non-stop music. The band’s four main members — Mumford, Marshall, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane — ran to the soundstage at the other end of the arena for a few stripped down songs featuring only a guitar, a banjo, and a four-part harmony. The standing crowd parted like the Red Sea, half pressing close to the soundstage while the others stayed close to the main stage in hopes of the band’s eventual return.
“We‘re gonna play a song that‘s really f—king quiet. It‘s so quiet that we all kind of have to be quiet for it to work,” Mumford instructed the crowd. The band then launched into “Sister,” a “secret” track off one of their very first EPs. At the end, Mumford said the Music City crowd had been the most quiet and respectful they had encountered so far on tour, and that the band would play one more quiet song as a reward. The four men sang the new song “Cold Arms” before returning to the main stage.
After playing a few more of their own songs, Mumford told the crowd “It completely blows my mind that we get to play music for you, and it completely blows my mind who we get to play music for you with“ before inviting John Oates of Hall & Oates onto stage for a cover of “You Make My Dreams.” The band then brought out even more guests — country music singer Big Kenny and legendary producer T Bone Burnett — for another cover, this one of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
“Thank God that‘s over…we could do that all night,” Mumford joked as the guests left at the end of the song. Mumford & Sons then closed their set with two songs of their own, “I Will Wait” and then “The Wolf,” and the band finally left the stage a full two hours after they had begun their set. Fans blinked as the overhead lights came back on, straggling up the steps out of Bridgestone, trying to adjust to both the brightness and the end of such a non-stop set. Empty plastic cups (but no bottle caps) littered the floor behind them, the only souvenirs of the memorable arena folk show.