Early in Mumford & Sons’ ground-breaking concert at Zephyr Field on Saturday, Marcus Mumford reflected on the setting. “I like playing in a baseball field,” he said. “It’s every musician’s dream to be a sportsman.”
Thanks to Mumford & Sons, Zephyr Field, formerly the exclusive domain of “sportsmen,” is now open to musicians.
On Saturday, the British band headlined the first major concert in the 20-year history of the minor-league baseball stadium on Airline Drive. Local bands have performed after games, and the stadium has hosted other events with live music, including a free, radio station-sponsored show in September 2014 that featured country act the Eli Young Band on a modest stage near second base.
But never before had Zephyr Field been so completely taken over by such a large-scale production, with a comparably large crowd and ticket gross, as on Saturday.
The playing field’s inner sanctum — the diamond of grass surrounding the pitcher’s mound — was barricaded and off-limits. Attendees were free to stand on the red infield dirt, or on the protective corrugated plastic flooring that covered the outfield grass. A towering stage, sturdy enough to support a full, arena-worthy lighting rig plus two jumbo video screens, dominated center field.
The concert capacity for Zephyr Field is approximately 17,000, including 10,000 seats in the stands and standing-room-only on the field. That is more than the capacity of the Smoothie King Center or Champions Square. As of midweek, more than 15,000 general admission tickets, priced at $59 apiece, already had been sold.
Patrons could choose to find seats or stand on the field. Not surprisingly, a sizable chunk of the crowd congregated in front of the huge stage.
With thousands more folks on hand than at any Zephyrs game, there were bound to be logistical challenges, such as the epic lines for beer and food. Vendors reportedly were accepting cash only, which led to correspondingly long lines at the ATMs. After the show, the wait for a shuttle to the satellite parking lots stretched to 45 minutes.
Despite those headaches, Zephyr Field made a fine outdoor concert venue. For its first 20 years, it apparently was simply in need of the right behind-the-scenes team to see its potential beyond baseball.
And the show itself? A home run.
Mumford & Sons has graduated to the big leagues. Arrangements are fuller and more varied now, thanks in part to a newfound affinity for electric instruments and a contingent of auxiliary musicians, including a trombonist, a trumpeter, a fiddler and opening act Blake Mills’ richly textured guitar.
Marcus Mumford is far more comfortable and confident as a frontman than he used to be. An hour into Saturday’s show, during “Ditmas,” he took an extended romp around the infield through the audience. As a camera followed him, some people were so excited to see themselves up on the big screens that they didn’t realize the sweaty guy pushing past them was Mumford.
He and his bandmates clearly relished the setting. Keyboardist Ben Lovett sported a Zephyrs jersey for the occasion. “This feels like a festival,” Mumford observed early on.
They frequently referred to New Orleans even though, technically speaking, the show was in Jefferson Parish. But “House of the Rising Sun” — which they covered, menacingly — simply wouldn’t work with the lyric, “There is a house in Metairie....”
Mumford & Sons made their bones with the sort of songs Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” character might sing in a pub: rousing anthems with inherent gravitas rendered with acoustic guitars, banjos and an upright bass, propelled by Mumford’s relentless kick drum. On the band’s 2015 third album, “Wilder Mind,” they recalibrated their sound around electric guitars and basses.
The duality of the two approaches, and the way they’ve managed to mesh them, was on display right from the get-go at Zephyr Field. They opened with “Snake Eyes,” a brooding, snarling cut from “Wilder Mind.” Mumford stood atop a monitor, abusing an electric guitar, throttling it to produce feedback. An auxiliary drummer stamped it with a big finish.
Just as they did at Mardi Gras World in 2013, they did “Little Lion Man,” their breakthrough hit, as the set’s second song. It was classic arena folk-era Mumford & Sons. Mumford strummed an acoustic guitar propulsively while thumping a kick drum with his right foot. Ted Dwane had switched from electric to upright acoustic bass. Winston Marshall traded his “Snake Eyes” electric guitar for a banjo.
And so it went through an 18-song, nearly two-hour set, as instruments and personnel shifted with the songs, illuminated by an ever-changing array of lights.
They clearly relished going electric, as evidenced by the slashing guitars of “Believe.” The four-part harmonies of “Broken Crown” built to a raging crescendo with horns, Mills and Mills’ drummer, Stuart Johnson.
In “Ghosts That We Knew,” which Mumford described as “a quiet one,” he sang, “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light.” All the texture and nuance of his recorded voice were present onstage.
The full Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined M&S onstage in 2013; this time around, only the band’s tuba player and creative director Ben Jaffe made it. He contributed to the swell of brass that elevated “House of the Rising Sun” beyond well-trod standard to something much more powerful; Mumford’s haunted rasp rivaled that of the Animals’ Eric Burdon. And in Mumford’s take, New Orleans has been the ruin of many a poor girl, not boy.
“Awake My Soul,” also boosted by Mills and Johnson, was framed by acoustic instruments, but still sweeping and grand. Mumford took a turn on drums for “Lover of the Light.” “We’re gettin’ there, New Orleans!” he enthused.
During the set-closing “Dust Bowl Dance,” they kicked out more than the jams. Lovett practically punted his stool; Mumford toppled his red drum kit.
In the encore, “Hot Gates” segued into Bruce Springsteen’s restrained tale of pent-up desire, “I’m on Fire.”
For “I Will Wait,” they were restrained no more; the song, with its acoustic configuration and Jaffe on board once again, was ecstatic; much of the crowd on the field clapped and sang along. The final “The Wolf,” the lead single from “Wilder Mind,” was electrified but no more powerful than its predecessor.
On a beautiful night at a reconsidered ballpark, whether songs were electric or acoustic didn’t much matter. Mumford & Sons knocked them out of the park either way.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.