Electric Mumfords? Bring It On
My dark little corner of the internet broke last week, not with the latest photo of a callipygian Kardashian leaning into a car, but something even bigger.
Mumford and Sons are going electric.
Here are a few of the less than enthusiastic responses to the news:
Me, I'm looking forward to Wilder Mind, and I'm not the only one. For every grouchy tweet like the ones above there's someone out there who is excited to see where this new road leads. Maybe the album will be a mess, maybe it will be brilliant, but at least the band is following its muse.
The Mumfords aren't the first to plug in, turn on and drop out. Bob Dylan's fifth album, 1965's Bringing It All Back Home, featured an electric side and an acoustic side. That electric side includes future classics "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm," but at the time some folkies pilloried Dylan for moving away from his traditional folk sound.
You know what happened next: The electric Dylan made his concert debut at that July's Newport Jazz Festival and was booed off of the stage. Why is still up for grabs. Was it the sound quality? The brevity of his 15-minute set? The fact that folkie Bob, the spokesman for a generation, dared to go electric?
We'll never know for sure, but those fans weren't chanting "Bruuuuuce."
The acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home opens with another future classic, "Mr. Tambourine Man." An electric, psychedelic cover of the song became a hit just a few months later for the Byrds, and a whole new genre opened up. There was gold in them there electric folk hills.
Up in Chicago, Marshall Chess must have been wondering if electrification and a little psychedelia might work for blues as well as folk. Chess Records artist Muddy Waters was on the down slope of his career, so they gave it a shot with 1968's Electric Mud.
The blues cognoscenti were having none of it. Rolling Stone said that the album "does great disservice to one of the blues' most important innovators, and prostitutes the contemporary styles to which his pioneering efforts have led." It was also the most commercially successful album of Waters' career, though he distanced himself from it.
Electric Mud was not the first psychedelic blues record, but it was the first made by one of the godfathers of the genre. What's most remarkable about it is how contemporary it sounds. Slip this one into your Black Keys mix and see whether anyone even notices.
Folk went electric, then blues. Jazz was next.
Trumpeter Miles Davis turned 44 in 1970, and over half of his life at that moment had been spent as a professional jazz musician. Davis had been through bebop and quite literally given birth to cool jazz. In the late '50s/early '60s Davis, along with his friend Gil Evans, blended bossa nova and other Latin influences with jazz. The guy was a true innovator.
A mind that broad and a talent that large couldn't escape the lure of rock and funk, and in 1970 Davis dropped Bitches Brew, perhaps the most essential album in the history of jazz fusion.
That was just the beginning, though. On the Corner, released in 1972 is as electrified as they come. Davis even ran his trumpet through guitar effects pedals.
"What period of Miles is your favorite" functions as a bit of a litmus test for jazz fans. The Birth of the Cool fans don't always care for the Bitches Brew era and vice versa. I don't think Davis cared much one way or another -- you either came along for the ride or you didn't.
Over on the rock side of the fence, Neil Young cut a genre swath wider than perhaps any other popular musician. If Miles was indifferent to his audience's response to his work, Young sometimes seemed like he was daring his fans to stick with him. One album could be all harmonica and acoustic guitar, the next walls of distorted feedback and the one after that some kind of plastic new wave:
Dylan, Miles, Muddy, Neil -- not only did they survive their seemingly mad experiments, but they thrived. Neil Young's Trans rarely leaves its place in my stacks (okay, never), but simply that Young tried on that suit of clothes makes him that much bigger in my estimation. And Bitches Brew? Forget about it. That album is always in my regular rotation.
I don't know whether an electric Mumfords album will be any good, and I definitely don't know whether the band will have the longevity and impact of the four artists mentioned here. All I know for sure is that there's a lot of precedent for your favorite acoustic band taking a detour down Electric Avenue, and I can't wait to see if this time it takes them higher.