Thanks for coming, everybody. It’s good to see you, albeit under these trying circumstances. The room’s not as full as I’d hoped, but I guess the hipsters who spent the entire summer of 2010 pretending to be Bluegrass aficionados haven’t come around for a while. And, listen, I don’t really blame them. I mean, Sigh No More got so big so fast that before they knew what was happening, the band had gone from “big in England, so you probably haven’t heard of them” to “radio popular” in the blink of an eye. The disciples of Brooklynism abandoned ship pretty quickly. In fact, I’ve never seen dudes in jeans that tight move that fast.
By the time Babel rolled around, they had their sneers ready, and it was clear they’d moved on.
But hey, we’re not here to talk about professional ironists. We’re here to talk about Mumford & Sons’ banjos, loyal friends from 2010 – 2015, who will be missed dearly.
I still remember the first time I heard the little guys. Who are these banjo-pickin’ Brits, I wondered, and why are they dressed like extras from The Grapes of Wrath? See, The Mumfords weren’t just folk musicians, they were the folksiest musicians. So folksy that they were never seen in public without their vests, so folksy that they traveled to gigs by rail, and of course, so folksy that acoustic guitars and earnest lyrics weren’t enough for them. They needed banjos. In every single song.
Were the Mumfords particularly good banjo players? To ask the question was to miss the point of the band’s entire existence. “Good” is a matter of subjective taste, but “banjo” is a way of life.
And for two glorious albums, containing 24 songs so banjo-ey that they were frequently impossible to tell apart, it was exactly that for Mumford & Sons. Sensitive frat guys and that one girl from your high school who always goes to Bonnaroo fist-pumped and stomped their feet (always on the off-beat, of course) to these guys for four-plus years, joyful and probably oblivious that the plucky twang they’d grown to love so much was about to be ripped from their lives too soon by the one person they never expected to be capable of such monstrous actions: Marcus Mumford himself.
Sure, we’d heard him talk about the new direction of their third album, Wilder Mind, but most of us just took it as innocent rambling, the kind of musician-speak that seems to precede every band’s next release. Then came guitarist Winston Marshall’s declaration last spring: “F*[email protected] the banjo,” he said.
Now, I know that was hard for all of us to hear. But still, I think most of you were like me and wrote Winston’s statements off to simple frustration born from a long hard tour and the contempt that can sometimes be bred by familiarity. The Mumfords and their banjos just need a little time apart. That’s what I thought at the time anyway. Eventually, I was sure, the band would once again reach for their small, deceptively heavy friends once more.
How wrong I was. How wrong we all were. I’ll never forget where I was this last Monday when I finally heard Wilder Mind all the way through. I kept holding out hope, because, see, it’s not like me to give up on a loved one. Yes, I kept holding on. But as the final notes of the final song played, I had to reconcile myself to the difficult truth: the banjos we’d all loved so dearly were really, finally, gone. In their place were heavier drums and… and electric guitars. I know how hard that is to hear.
If you’re anything like me, when you heard the new record, you too were looking for answers. And in your frustration and pain maybe you cried out to the Mumfords above, hoping desperately to understand why such good instruments, such young instruments, were taken from us so coldly.
I didn’t expect the band to show up here today, but I hope there’s some part of them that realizes what they’ve done, and how much it’s hurt the people they say that they play for. I see there in the back that a few pairs of the band’s suspenders were able to make it. I hope you’ll carry back our message of grief and disappointment to Marcus and the boys. It’s good to see they haven’t left you behind like our dearly departed stringed friends.
In closing, let me just say that I will hold no grudge against the band themselves. Every man must do what he thinks is right, and they have made their choice. They must now live with it. And yes, I know it stings, dear brothers, when you hear the opening chord of a Mumford & Sons song think for just a second that you’re listening to Coldplay’s X & Y, but remember that it only stings because you then remember what it was like the first time you heard the glorious combination of harmony and banjo on “Roll Away Your Stone” and “Little Lion Man” and “Awake My Soul” and “I Will Wait” and “Lover of the Light” and “Below My Feet” and, admittedly, every song the band ever wrote.
Remember that feeling, my friends. For the banjos, we must always remember.