The dichotomy sitting within the music of Mumford & Sons revealed itself the moment the lights went down Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
After a preshow arsenal of vintage soul favorites from Aretha Franklin, The Contours and The Four Tops blasted through the venue to put the crowd of 8,500 in a celebratory mood, Marcus Mumford and an expanded eight member version of the British pop-folk brigade took to the stage with the first two tunes from their recent “Delta” album. The songs, “42” and “Guiding Light,” quickly iced over the any impending party mood with an atmospheric disparity that was rather chilling.
The two works are essentially companion pieces. The first seeks a path out of darkness, the second finds it. It was an opening that left the Rupp crowd transfixed, seated and somewhat deflated.
But then the party started. With “Little Lion Man,” Mumford & Sons turned back the calendar a full decade to the stomping, folk-informed pop sound rich with fiddle and banjo that first opened the world’s ears to the British band. The audience shot to its feet as if a switch had been thrown.
The band shuffled back and forth between regions of dark and light for the rest of the performance. The latter mostly won out, whether it was through the more elegiac and acoustic inclined “Beloved,” the drummer-less rhythmic drive of “Roll Away Your Stone” or those more rocking instances where Mumford and banjoist Winston Marshall opted for electric guitars, as during the high-voltage charge of “Believe.”
Perhaps the most fascinating blend of the two extremes surfaced during “Picture You,” which blew in with synthesized layers of finger popping cool before yielding to the full ensemble charge of “Darkness Visible.”
This was a visually arresting performance. Presented in the round (well, actually on a rectangular stage in the middle of the rectangular Rupp floor), it allowed the band to perform under two massive banks of lights that regularly descended near the stage like probing spaceships.
But the staging also allowed for intimacy. During an encore set, the band gathered around a single microphone for a brief set highlighted by the almost gospel-esque “Sister” that revealed Mumford & Sons at its most appealing and familial.
Mumford proved utility man of the evening, as well. Aside from diverting to drums and percussion for a few tunes, he also sat in for roughly one-third of a fascinating opening set by Chan Mitchell, better known by her professional nom de plume of Cat Power.
A recording artist for over two decades, Mitchell still plays with the wonderment – and, at times, distance – of a hopeful newcomer. The set opening “Cross Bones Style” and later entries such as “Robbin Hood” were wrapped in a spacious electric wash for which her vocals operated more as an additional color as opposed to a lead voice. Singing often with two microphones and wandering in and out of stage shadows, Mitchell echoed the dark chanteuse ambiance of artists like Nico while her songs were seldom inhibited by standard verse/chorus structure. They instead unfolded more as ongoing meditations.
There were curious elements of accessibility thrown in, like snippets of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and the folk staple “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Similarity, Mumford’s extended cameo brought a broader pop palette to original works like “Manhattan” while offering a hint of the dark/light dichotomy the evening’s headliners would soon explore in detail.