Florence + the Machine review – athletic feats and eerie rock’n’roll

O2 Arena, London
Florence Welch commands communal release of energy that holds together set heavy with ideas

A man is on his hands and knees, scrubbing Florence Welch’s blood from a previously pristine white plinth. “No broken bones, they don’t think,” she says upon returning to the stage, her right foot bandaged after a conflab with a medic. She immediately launches into Choreomania, a song about a medieval phenomenon in which groups of people would be taken by the compulsion to dance themselves to the brink of death and beyond. It was, perhaps, always going to go this far.

Florence + the Machine’s recent album, Dance Fever, posited that movement is a necessity, as a tool for communication and as a release valve. Its songs were fuelled by Welch’s grief at losing the ability to tour during the pandemic, giving them an almost metatextual edge that she eagerly exploits here. By the time she has ripped through a couple of Choreomania’s verses she has run, still barefoot, from the front of the arena to the back and hoisted herself atop a barrier. There, arms spread wide, she roars: “You said that rock’n’roll is dead, but is that just because it has not been resurrected in your image?”

It is a wonderful rock’n’roll moment in a set that seeks to explore the nature of performance, surrendering at times to a sense of artifice that may come across as suffocatingly pretentious in other hands. “My whole stage persona is a mix of my childhood obsession with Rogue from X-Men and a Victorian ghost,” Welch once told the New York Times, and this sense of self-awareness allows her to carry off the evening’s more stylised elements, with routines that draw on her love of the expressionist dancer Pina Bausch rubbing shoulders with balletic spins straight out of her teenage bedroom a few miles away in Camberwell.

Opening with Heaven Is Here, she walks among hanging, cobweb-heavy chandeliers straight out of the Hammer horror prop department, the gilded trim on her pink dress picked out by harsh white light. She punches the air in time with a thudding kick drum, ratcheting up the tension further during a patient rendition of King, its subtle melodies bubbling just below the surface. Things finally break open with Ship to Wreck, which reduces the floor to a tangle of limbs. Welch pogos on the spot and kicks her feet back and forth, making no effort to hide her glee as the crowd screams the chorus back to her.

Equally effective is her decision to pare her interpretation of certain songs back to the bare minimum, as though she is pushing herself to see how large a reaction she can elicit with the smallest flick of her wrist. When she begins the encore with Never Let Me Go, reintroducing the bruising ballad to her setlist after a decade away, huge swathes of the crowd mimic the gentle rise and fall of her hands, the saturated blue lighting giving the passage an otherworldly feel.

“What I would like to practise with you, London, is a resurrection of dance,” Welch says at one point. This is weapons-grade hokum, but it is given heft by the reaction of the fans pressed against the barrier, their hair garlanded with flowers. They hang on her every word, throwing bouquets at her feet as Dog Days Are Over hums to life, and provide the release that the gig is geared towards. Without that communal feeling, the whole thing may collapse under the weight of its many ideas.

Crucially, the other thing preventing that from happening is Welch’s astounding voice. Backed by a band who provide the requisite crunch on What Kind of Man and turn Kiss With a Fist into a chaotic stomp, she often threatens to raise the roof, the power of her delivery undimmed by the athletic feats at the heart of the show. Daffodil, a relatively inconsequential psych-pop track from Dance Fever, is recast as a rumbling giant with an intro that has something in common with the vocal acrobatics of Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. It’s the sort of thing that can rock you back on your heels, but Welch only has a mind for keeping your feet moving, blood and all.


Huw Baines

The GuardianTramp

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