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Deck the Hall Ball 2011: Mumford & Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, Cage the Elephant at Key Arena

The entire audience stood up in unison Wednesday night as West London four-piece Mumford & Sons quietly assembled themselves on the Key Arena's unlit stage. Lead singer (complete with decidedly Dickensian moniker) Marcus Mumford began to sing and play guitar alone, introducing "Lover's Eyes" to the vast darkness.

Excited screams rang from various corners of the largely teen-age crowd and upon hitting the chorus, eight yellow bulbed boxes of lights around the stage flashed as the stage lights were lit. The boxes started to scroll striped patterns of arranged lights more in keeping with a cheap rap video than a folk show.

The quartet stood shirted and waistcoated in a line like a folk Kraftwerk, save for an extra fiddler skulking in the background, toting a keyboard, guitars and banjos, and a double bass.

"Are you having a good day?" Marcus asked lightly and politely before sending the Mumford mustang galloping into familiar stomp territory with "Roll Away Your Stone."

"Winter Wings" followed as the foursome remained largely rooted to the spot in front of their mics amidst the blur of hyper-speed strumming on banjos and guitars that resembled hummingbirds' wings. Unless a musical interlude arrived, in which case the band would suddenly clatter around the stage, giddy from the rhythm. "White Blank Page" and "Timshel" also received an airing, the latter's harmonies sounding akin to Fleet Foxes had they spent more time drinking Guinness in worn pubs.

Screams shot into the air again as the intro to the band's hit "Little Lion Man" fired up, after which Marcus retreated to the drum-kit to transition into "Lover of the Light" followed by new song "Ghosts that We Knew" in his restrained yet impassioned brogue.

After releasing only one album, the British bluegrass stompers have caught the sort of mainstream attention and all-ages attraction in the U.S. that most other overseas bands (and labels) ten albums deep would kill for. Perhaps the cultural legacy of English folk and Celtic music runs deeper in American veins than previously thought. Pioneering and puritanical lyrics collided tonight with raucous musical celebration.

 

Death Cab for Cutie were the most experienced band on the bill and it showed. The Bellingham four-piece have seen more tour miles than the rest of the tonight's bands combined and they are clearly very comfortable doing what they do.

"We're a professional rock band!" singer Ben Gibbard joked when an uncontrolled surge in bass feedback finally died down. Really, though, they are.

Christmas lights decorated the keyboards and drum kit as the group opened with the powerful intro chords of "The New Year" and "I Will Possess Your Heart." Gibbard sang and played and flopped his floppy hair energetically, shifting his weight quickly from foot to foot in time with the music, like a goalkeeper deciding whether to dive right or left.

 

The set's highlight was the nuanced piano that began "Brothers on a Hotel Bed."

 

Death Cab's show could not have be more in contrast with Kentucky's Cage the Elephant's set.

Swapping Death Cab's charged, poetic lyrics and deftly chosen chords for brazen guitar melodies and half-sung couplets, lead singer Matt Shultz head-banged his way around the stage right from the opening bars of "In One Ear," his mic only catching every other word.

He crowd-surfed three times during the band's hour-long performance. "Around My Head" and "Back Against the Wall" from the five-piece followed, youthful energy filling in the gaps of a sloppy performance.

During commerical radio cat-nip "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," Shultz decided to go for a walk on the heads of the audience members in front of him. He then lost his balance and twisted around to lie down on the crowd as the music powered on.

 

The biggest cheer of the night came as I arrived and walked in to the venue on the second floor and looked down and around to see a virtually sold-out show; the neatly-rectangular crowd on the floor of the cavernous Arena looking like a whole lasagne resting inside a dragon's belly.

L.A.'s Foster the People were just starting to play "Pumped Up Kicks," whose ubiquity earned it the title of THAT SONG in 2011 by a country mile; it was to this year what Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' "Home" was to 2010.

Yelps and high-pitched excitement abounded like you'd just walked into Wild Waves. Singer Mark Foster leapt on and off stage speakers while singing the song's high-noted chorus flawlessly. Like the majority of Deck the Hall Ballers here tonight, he was clearly not too old for this hit.

Photography by Nate Watters.

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