Three and a half albums into their career, and Mumford & Sons find themselves at another junction. They could go in whichever direction they choose, but never route one. These four men do things differently. Unconventionally.
The world is a big old place, and Mumford & Sons want to see it all, meet everyone.
2016 was a fine example of that. Firstly, we're all familiar now with the story of how nobody quite saw it exploding the way it did, quite so emphatically. Four amiable, talented lads from West London, one inexplicably clinging to a banjo. Give over, not a hope. And yet.. BANG. One of the most successful bands in the world, and one of most hard-working too. Gigs upon gigs upon gigs. Jubilant, joyous gigs. One cornerstone starts to blur into the next and yet still it keeps on getting bigger, keeps on getting better. They play it like they really mean it. From the heart. Was it all calculated? The introduction of an electric guitar? Not a chance. Does it truly look as if it was? Really though, does it? They're as miffed as you are, they just choose not to analyse it. Not enough hours in the day. Live it.
We digress.. Back to 2016, then. A first trip out to South Africa. Winston had visited family there when he was younger. Interesting place. Worth a look. A couple of introductory 'taster' shows somehow turned into six sprawling sold-out, outdoor park dates. Historic. Epic. 85,000 tickets sold. Big ol' parks. There was one in Pretoria that particularly caught the eye. Thunder storms like firework displays, and the tropical rain kicking up the dust. It was handily filmed by Eagle Rock and is released on DVD in February 2017, called Dust & Thunder. Quite the spectacle. A batch of global screenings in November found fans dancing in the aisles, belting out the favourites old and new, and as visibly moved as their South African brethren back at the beginning of the year. During some rare, brief downtime in Johannesburg, the band hit a makeshift studio at The South African Broadcasting Corporation with some friends. Senegalese hero Baaba Maal, Malawi's The Very Best, and local favourites, Cape Town's Beatenberg all hunkered down to see what would come of it together. That's where the 'half an album' comes from, the gloriously affecting, collaborative 'Johannesburg' mini-album. The process was documented in a sixty-minute film, We Wrote This Yesterday, which chronicles most of the visit, with particular attention paid to that labyrinthine studio space.
Then what? Well, for a band renowned for their relentless, far-flung touring, it was quite a surprise to learn that Mumford & Sons were yet to step foot in South America. When the lights went out on the South African trip, the party headed off for debut shows on the Lollapalooza run. Sao Paolo, Brazil, Argentina, Chile.. Wild, raucous shows. Passionate audiences. Everyone giving it their all, on both sides of the barrier. They'll be returning, that's for sure.
Back in the UK, there were two big live moments to enjoy. A headline slot for Radio 1's annual live extravaganza down in Devon, and then the Summer's piece d'resistance. The one. London's iconic Hyde Park in July. 65,000 fans going absolutely nuts one hazy Summer's evening. Backed by an all-star cast throughout the day, Mumford & Sons typically rose to the (overwhelming sense of) occasion, and even the Johannesburg lads made the considerable effort to fly in and to take to the stage, performing a few tracks together from the, just released, mini-album. What a day. Another of those so-called 'cornerstones'. Hyde Park. Tick.
So, what next? New songs have been written, we know that much. Several thousand US fans will have heard two or three played out live on the Austin 5000 Tour (and several million more via the crude mobile recordings online). Some festival spots are already being added and etched into the diary, and album four will undoubtedly start to take its skeletal shape. Yet all that could all be reasonably predicted. It's what we don't know, what we cannot predict about Mumford & Sons that will continue to excite us most.