Gig Review: Florence and the Machine

Florence and the Machine, NEC LG Arena, Tuesday, March 13th 2012

Steve Beauchampé writes an unexpected concert review. No press ticket involved, just decided to go a few hours before the show, found that they had a few standing spaces left… here’s the review.

Florence and the MachineShe’s come a long way has Florence Welch. From playing to 500 early adopters at Birmingham Academy 2 in May 2009, through the critical and commercial success of debut album Lungs (still featuring in album charts 32 months on), headlining tours and festival sets to this, her first arena tour, in support of last year’s sophomore album, Ceremonials.

Such a trajectory was, if not inevitable, then at least highly likely, as far back as that Academy 2 show. That tumultuous voice, Welch’s obvious love of performance and theatre, and those killer tunes, complex, layered, epic, dark and quite like nothing else out there.

So here we are at the LG Arena, 13,000 adoring fans (many probably encountering the band live for the first time) the demographic heavily female. For Ceremonials Florence has adopted elegant, art deco visuals and naturally the stage set mirrors this imagery. So too her attire; a lavish, flowing, voluminous black cloak to start with, a gold leotard to follow, and with her long orange tresses tied back all evening.

But it’s the music, not the design ethos, that ultimately counts and with Ceremonials receiving as rapturous a reception from both critics and fans as its predecessor, Welch now has two albums worth of knockout tunes to choose from. Tonight’s ninety-minute set selects widely from both but still a few people are going to go home without hearing their personal favourite.

It’s wrong of course to view the show as a one-woman extravaganza, there’s ten skilled musicians and vocalists helping create that soaring, sweeping, operatic sound and there’s nothing of the ‘diva’ in the leading lady. Nevertheless, such a presence and conduit of the audience’s love is Florence Welch that the Machine inevitably takes a back seat. Yet they are a true band, not a bunch of session musicians assembled for the tour but an all for one, one for all group, albeit it one whose front woman just happens to be quite a star.

And one who’s learnt well. Her performance at Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 2010 was marred I felt by somewhat shouty vocals and Flo has acknowledged in recent interviews that she had a tendency to ‘over sing’ in the past. Not the gruesome note mangling of the X-Factor tribe, with their sham histrionics, but simply an over-enthusiasm that on occasion rejected subtlety in favour of bombast.

But not tonight; not on this tour. Now she appreciates that less is more, that such a weapon is more effective when deployed judiciously and with restraint.

Shake It Out, What The Water Gave Me. Never Let Me Go and the utterly beautiful Breaking Down – all from Ceremonials – are aired. It’s an evolutionary work, taking the arrangements, ideas and lyrical investigations of Lungs further, perhaps to their natural conclusion. The old and new rub along nicely; Cosmic Love, Between Two Lungs and Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) – from Lungs – weave seamlessly with the more recent work. Flo spends much of the evening standing at the microphone; detaching said machine relatively rarely to skip along the stage or clamber the steps behind the drums to stand silhouetted against the stage set backdrop (onto which some gorgeous art-deco graphics are transposed throughout the set). Sometimes she pirouettes, often she smiles and laughs, but keeps her conversation with us limited, getting on with the music like a wise trouper.

Audience participation, evident all evening, reaches it zenith with Dog Days Are Over and the inevitable You’ve Got The Love. Great though Candi Staton’s original version of this latter song is, Florence has truly made it her own in a way that rarely happens with a cover of a long-established classic. The soaring vocals (just the right place to cast restraint aside) showcase how stupendously well Welch can hold a note, not by bending it and mauling it artificially, but by sheer power, drive and energy.

A short encore draws to a close with No Light, No Light. Arena tours don’t suit some artists, but they were made for Florence and the Machine. So onwards, ever upwards – Glastonbury main stage headliners 2013? Come on Michael and Emily Eavis, you know it makes sense!