I came down from my office to get a bite of lunch on Monday and as I passed from the hallway into the kitchen I could hear the rain. Uh oh, I thought of the concert later that night. The forecast was for scattered thunder storms with deadly lightning. Hmmm....deadly lightning. Is there any other kind?
I had never been to the Great Lawn at Waterfront Park but I'd seen it often enough when I crossed the bridge into Louisville. From the bridge it looked to be a narrow strip of land. Much too narrow to hold 16,000 thousand fans for this sold out show. I had just read a glowing review of Mumford's weekend concert at Bristol and I thought we should chance it. I considered the odds and thought if there was deadly lighting probably it would strike someone else in such a large crowd anyway – maybe it would only be warm gentle tingly lightning.
We crossed the bridge under threatening skies encountering only very light traffic. At a quarter past five that was kind of surreal. We paid $5 to park in a public lot on River Road behind the Humana building and walked a few hundred feet to the back of the line waiting to enter the gates. It was 5:30 and the line was all the way back to the road and growing quickly. The gates were supposed to be open but the line was not moving and a girl in front of us turned and remarked that it was a real fuck-up just like Forecastle! A few minutes later the line lurched forward.
Things proceeded quickly to the gates and I watched as the young man first matched credit cards with photo ID's then swiped the card used to purchase the tickets through what looked like an I-Phone with a reader on the side. It confirmed our tickets and we were in. I was surprised. Only a minute ago the line had appeared quite large in front of us yet the great lawn seemed to have swallowed them all up. We moved towards the stage and selected a spot only a few hundred feet away from it; about even with the back of the sound mix pavilion. We could have gotten closer but as our frenetic days of musical exuberance were well behind us we decided this would be close enough. Besides any closer and my wife might want on my shoulders...and I would except – deadly lightning! We spread a large tarp, covered it with blankets, and went to explore the food and drink stands lined up underneath the elevated interstate.
The large banners hanging over the entryway were Miller Lite so I was pretty sure I would be making a big concession to my standards if I chose to indulge in the beer concessions. To my surprise some of the beer trucks had an NABC tap dispensing Black and Blue Grass and others had a Fall City tap. Sweet! There was also a nice array of food on offer. I was hungry so I went right to the Texans BBQ stand even before getting a beer. They had brisket and pulled pork. Again sweet! I asked for a brisket sandwich and was surprised when it was handed to me by someone I knew - a server at the NABC Pizzeria.
The sandwich consisted of two generous slices of meat sporting a beautiful pink smoke ring and a thin layer of fat along the top edge. In other words – texas style brisket. It was piled on the bun and a squirt of sauce was applied. There was no asking for different sauces and there were no pickles or onions to be had either. That was ok. After a single bite I knew this was the real deal - smoky and delicious. I wolfed it down while we were standing in line for beers.
As we were waiting in line Chris joked “What if while we're gone somebody makes off with our bitches?” I looked at him with mock indignation. “Did you really just say - makes off with?” I asked. We got our beer and meandered back to our spot. To our relief, no one had made off with our bitches. They too seemed happy with their selections which included grilled chicken breast and fried fish sandwiches, kettle chips, and of course the ubiquitous pork chop. We actually had two extra bitches with us so the spread wasn't as extravagant as it sounds. I gestured down at the food laid out and said to Chris “They'd bring them back as soon as they realized how much it costs to feed them.”
It had been years since I was last at an outdoor concert of this size. I vividly remember parts of some of the ones from my past and I wondered how this would compare. I go to a few concerts every year but most feature old rockers and the crowd is just too tame to get up to much mischief. As the lawn filled up over the next couple of hours I noted that the crowd was a mixture of age groups but most appeared to be in their twenties. Throughout the event the crowd was well behaved and I saw no altercations or otherwise alarming behavior. Well except when the young man standing just in front of us slowly folded over and was helped to the ground by his girl friend.
He sat with his head down and I wondered if he was going to throw up or pass out. I knelt down and asked his girl friend if she knew what was wrong with him. She said “Oh it's his first concert and he is just overwhelmed.” This seemed unlikely but as he did not seem in undue distress I told her that he was welcome to lie down on our blankets. A girl darted in from behind us and placed a bottle of water in his hand. I'd noticed this couple had come in without anything at all to sit on. The young man had stripped off his shirt and gallantly laid it down for the girl to sit on. A grizzled man with sun reddened skin had laughingly called them concert rookies when he saw they had no blanket and insisted they use a corner of his tarp. This man rushed over with a cup of ice and huddled with the young man for a minute before returning to his place. The young man stayed down during much of Mumford's set but regained his feet just before the encore.
Later in the car I laughed in amusement at the naïve girl who thought her young man had just being overcome by his first concert experience. One of our group snorted and said that it could have been that.... or possibly it was the copious amounts of weed smoke she had been blowing into his mouth for an hour before he collapsed. Yeah it was definitely one or the other.
Their were two warm-up bands. They were “The Apache Relay” and “Dawes.” Both were fine as wine but just killing time until it got dark and the stars could come out to shine. Shine they did. When Mumford appeared it was amidst a spectacle of light that shown very bright and they were greeted with a roar. That was the last moment anyone but concert rookies spent off their feet. The temperature wasn't cool but a light breeze kept things comfortable and swept away the bugs. Two large screens flanked the stage providing detailed close ups of the entertainers in high resolution black and white. These images were like a documentary and added a certain gravitas to the event. Mumford's four main band members were quite loquacious and entertained the crowd with their British accents between songs. They bantered with each other as well and talked about spending the previous evening at the “Third Street Dive.” They were pro steamboat, bourbon, and seemed to like saying “fuck” and “Kentucky” quite a lot. The crowd also seemed to like it as it drew a roar each time. I wondered if this was what it was like for the Beatles when they first came over to play for adoring American crowds.
Unlike those early electric rock axe wielders who laid it down with throbbing steel strings and sizzling staccato snares, Mumford lit up the lawn with much different instruments. Banjo, dobro, acoustic six-string; accordion, violin, upright piano, and double base. This heretical English band from London coaxed rock rhythms at thunder cloud intensity from instruments more commonly found on a country stage or bluegrass hoe down. Much like those crowds witnessing the early days of rock and roll, Louisville was witness to a nearly indefinable sound.
Haunting layers of complex textures melded from strings, horns, and harmonies blended in ways that surprised and satisfied. Mumford's songs often began simply enough like a strange sky before the storm; building like a foreboding horizon that inexorably arrived to rain down in a heart racing crescendo. Marcus Mumford's strong voice alternately crooned or belted out strange dark lyrics full of mourning and angst that remained tuneful, yet oddly uplifting. During the quiet passages when his vocals dominated, his rich lilting voice captivated completely and evoked imagery of death, betrayal, love, and inspiration, with a dash of the lascivious wanton thrown in for good measure. Sure, same old same old. I've never heard anything like this before.
The songs themselves were littered with throw-away lines added, only it seemed, to complete the rhyme. I felt the presence of these lines diminished the power of some songs. Yet these tone poems were delivered by the band with such enthusiasm and musicality that I could not help but be caught up in this immersive experience. Like the aftermath of the storm that rages then leaves you standing shaken but safe, when the stage went dark and the music faded like the sound of distant thunder you were left feeling exhilarated and more alive than before.
This song set, like the storm that brings no wind or flood seemed mostly show with little substance. Or maybe it was a new kind of genius. Yeah it was definitely one or the other.