Mumford & Sons Look Back, Head Forward On ‘Live At Letterman’

Ahead of tonight's 'Saturday Night Live' performance (and new album Babel), band tapes 'Letterman' set.

Back in 1964, the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a watershed moment that kicked off the British Invasion and set a record for “most shots of hormonally charged girls squealing in an audience” that remains unchallenged to this day (sorry, Bieber).

On Friday evening, 48 years after the Fab Four inflamed the loins of America’s youth, Mumford & Sons were in the same studio — now renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater — though the conditions were slightly less wild. They were there to tape a “Live on Letterman” performance, one designed to hype their upcoming Babel album (out here in the States on September 25), and while there weren’t exactly a ton of screaming fangirls in attendance (they’ve apparently been replaced by “dudes with beards”), the band couldn’t help but mention the past, as keyboardist Ben Lovett sheepishly called his mates “the poor man’s version of the Beatles.”

But after addressing the past, Mumford & Sons used the remainder of their set to focus very prominently on the future: They played no less than six songs from Babel, kicking things off with roiling first single “I Will Wait” and letting plaintive (and very pretty) new tunes like “Lovers’ Eyes” and “Whispers in the Dark” stretch their legs and amble a bit. “Lover of the Light” started somber and clear-eyed, then built to a stomping crescendo; “Below My Feet” blossomed with piano and four-wide vocal harmonies; and “Ghosts That We Knew” didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Things didn’t always go smoothly — frontman Marcus Mumford busted a guitar string during “Eyes,” much to the amusement of banjo-playing Winston Marshall, and the first run-through of “Whispers” was aborted due to some mishap with Mumford’s guitar (good to get the technical difficulties out of the way before their “Saturday Night Live” performance, I suppose) — though the band managed to laugh them off, with Lovett deadpanning, “Usually things go smoother than this.”

Of course, they also wedged songs from their breakout Sigh No More album like “Roll Away Your Stone” and their two biggest hits, “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man,” much to the delight of the fans, who stomped their feet and clapped along in time. And that enthusiasm was pretty constant throughout the taping, as the folks in attendance cheered songs old and new, and even applauded a jokey exchange between Mumford and Marshall (“They’re applauding banter,” Marshall laughed). And judging by the number of fans who already knew all the words to the Babel songs, Mumford & Sons don’t have to worry about following up the Stateside success of their debut disc.

There may not have been any mop-tops, and the screeching was definitely kept to a minimum, but none of that really mattered. With their “Letterman” gig, Mumford proved that their new songs definitely have legs — and a spirit to match. And while remembering the past is certainly nice — and sort of inevitable in a theater as historic as the Sullivan — this is a band that seems more focused on the present. And who can blame them? With a new album just days away, things are looking pretty bright indeed.