Bruce Springsteen was halfway through Hungry Heart when he walked over to the four young Englishmen standing side of stage singing along at the Pinkpop Festival in Holland. He nodded to them and then waved them to the stage. Having approvingly watched Mumford & Sons perform earlier in the day, Springsteen was inviting the folk-rock group to join him. Naturally, the quartet reacted as most people would. They froze to the spot.
''We were so shocked that it was happening because we hadn't even met him yet and it was in front of 60,000 or 70,000 people,'' the group's keyboardist, Ben Lovett, recalls. ''There was definitely a few seconds where we stood there stunned, but just as he was starting to look confused we ran out and grabbed any extra instruments available and sang along.''
Being asked to share a stage with a rock'n'roll icon is one of the few things left that might actually surprise Mumford & Sons. Since the London four-piece released their debut album, Sigh No More, in October 2009, they've gone from unknowns to breakout stars, selling more than 4 million albums worldwide on the back of a rousing live show that, over 18 months of gigs worldwide, took them from theatres to arenas. In New Zealand they've topped the charts.
The fortunes of the group - Lovett, frontman Marcus Mumford (who married British actress Carey Mulligan in April) and multi-instrumentalists Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane - came so far so quickly that seemingly the only thing left to do was put out a dispirited second album, where the rigours of touring and the weight of those many platinum album awards weighed down their shoulders and extinguished their enthusiasm.
But even a cursory listen to Babel, the band's recently released second album, dispels that notion. As bracing as their debut, bluegrass belters such as Whispers in the Dark and Broken Crown acknowledge difficulties but come out on the side of optimism. The songs were recorded live in the studio, with an emphasis on feel over technique, suggesting Mumford & Sons have an appetite for construction.
''We're still figuring ourselves out, but the purpose of Babel is to reassure ourselves of our identity. We were so shocked at the reaction to Sigh No More - it genuinely wasn't supposed to take us out of Britain,'' Lovett says. ''Babel wasn't meant to be a digression from our sound. We knew our instruments, we felt confident, so the decision was to keep going.
''There're a lot of second records out there, put out by some of our favourite bands, where they didn't realise until the third record that they couldn't just lament how awful and tiring it is being in a successful band.''
In the video to recent single I Will Wait, Mumford & Sons play to a very excited audience of 10,000 at the picturesque Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and it's hard to tell who's enjoying themselves more: the band or their fans.
''The songs for Babel got whittled down from like 60 contributions to 12, and they're the ones we're all really invested in,'' Lovett says of the album that topped the US, British charts and New Zealand charts. ''If we were delivering songs that left us feeling empty and sad, that would be exhausting. We don't want to leave a negative message behind us in each city.''
The band has also been thinking about how to improve their touring experience. As Babel is launched around the world, they've introduced the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover, a live concept where Mumford & Sons and a group of hand-picked supports put on a one-day festival in a regional location outside the usual urban gig circuit. New Zealand misses out this time, but the band played Dungog, a town of about 2000 residents in New South Wales during the Australian leg of their tour.
''I think a lot of worth and quality is often based on how old something is and if it has stood the test of time, and that applies to everything from buildings and literature to the bands we admire,'' Lovett says. ''We always tip our hats to those guys who've played for 50 years.''
Putting on a one-off boutique festival off the beaten track isn't easy, but the four-piece have played enough gatherings to know they can easily become less about the music and more about commercial considerations. Sponsors, for example, aren't meant to intrude on the Gentlemen of the Road experience.
''The last one we did, in Dixon, 100 miles [161 kilometres] south of Chicago, was amazing,'' Lovett says.
''Those events are very much about the attitude that people bring to them, whether it's the organisers or local council or the people who travelled a long way to attend. Every single person was up for it, you felt embraced, and that meant every band played to enthusiastic crowds and nothing went wrong.
''We want to make sure that being in this band leaves us with a lot of special memories.''
Mumford & Sons will be tonight at the NZ Music Awards, tomorrow at Auckland's Vector Arena and will play Wellington Town Hall on Sunday and Monday.
- © Fairfax NZ News