Something verging on the magical occurred Friday at Cricket Wireless Amphitheater. Mumford & Sons, a band that seemed like a contrived novelty during a histrionic appearance at the RecordBar three years ago, was nothing short of majestic in its headlining concert at the outdoor venue in Bonner Springs.
The British folk ensemble became one of the world's most popular bands soon after its blustery Kansas City debut in 2010. Its quick ascent was as unlikely as it was undeserved. Friday's sparkling outing showcased the band's rapid improvement. The capacity audience of about 18,000 witnessed a significantly superior show than the 250 people who squeezed into the RecordBar experienced in 2010.
The four members of Mumford & Sons have honed their skills as musicians and have learned valuable lessons about pleasing their audience. In a counterintuitive twist, the band's music and showmanship translate better in a large-scale setting than in a small tavern. The antics of front man Marcus Mumford can appear overbearingly grandiose from a distance of 10 feet but his theatricality is sublime when viewed from 100 yards away.
With just two albums to its credit — Mumford noted that "we've got to write some more songs"— the two-hour performance held the potential to seem routine. Yet with fresh arrangements and inspired playing, the band never sounded weary. A supplemental violinist and cellist contributed to an enchantingly delicate version of "For Those Below." A three-piece horn section gave other selections additional heft.
The audience jubilantly greeted the opening strains of the hits "Little Lion Man" and "I Will Wait," but Mumford & Sons demonstrated its artistic development to best effect on "Lover of the Light." The melodrama and inflated air of self-importance that occasionally bedevil the band were replaced with effective dynamics and meaningful interaction with the audience. The quartet gathered around a microphone for rapturous versions of "Reminder" and "Timshel" that showcased its gorgeous harmony singing.
The members of the two fine opening acts- Mystery Jets and Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit- joined Mumford & Sons for an endearingly scruffy version of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." Flynn noted during his set that the concert — originally scheduled for June but delayed after Mumford & Sons bassist Ted Dwane underwent emergency surgery to remove a blot clot on his brain — was the final date of the headliner's extensive tour.
"This is end of school for these guys," Flynn said. "They're never touring (again)."
Flynn was joking, but the idea is almost too painful to contemplate. Friday's powerful performance indicated that Mumford & Sons is only now beginning to come into its own.