“Hands up who thinks I won’t make it to the end of the show?” Florence Welch is on the final night of a three-week pre-Christmas tour, and she’s in the mood to party. She’s clad in a onesie that sits somewhere between downbeat clown and valentines doll, has black hearts painted beneath her eyes and finds herself performing to a crowd collectively sporting fake blood, a heavy dousing of glitter and clutching the odd umbrella. Florence & The Machine asked for fancy dress, and she’s got it: tonight’s packed O2 crowd are reliving Halloween with a dose of the Christmas silly season scattered on top.
Perhaps it’s the flamboyant atmosphere, but Florence also seems to be a different kind of performer than the timid hippie-ish vocalist that first emerged into the mainstream three years ago. While earlier shows saw the waif-like character mic-hugging for large parts of the set, delivering exceptional vocals with fairy-like, rooted stage moves, tonight sees Welch running the length of the sizeable platform during instrumentals, leaping on the spot, downing shots and drenching the front few rows in torrents of glitter. It’s great to look at, and while this isn’t her best vocal performance (which is not to say it’s in the least bit poor), it is fiery, and thrilling to watch.
Stepping from behind a silhouetted backdrop, Florence opens with ‘Only If For A Night’, setting the tone for the evening. Tonight’s set list is 16 tracks long yet stretches to two hours, with the seven minutes plus per song filled with extended, atmospheric instrumental introductions and joyous chatter from Ms Welch. ‘Cosmic Love’, delivered from beneath a starry sky of a backdrop and seeing Florence’s vocals peak in glorious, banshee-like hollers is an early highlight, while ‘You’ve Got The Love’ turns into a massive sing-along in which Florence eggs on the crowded arena and steps away for the choruses.
Tonight’s set leans far more heavily on Ceremonials than Lungs, and if most fans will willingly admit the earlier album was the stronger of the two, her latest does lend itself to a live setting. ‘Heartlines’ offers a pace-change and shifts into the realms of a classy power ballad, while ‘Shake It Out’ – a set of strong verses accompanied by a lyrically weak chorus – comes to life and has the wavy lighting illuminating huge great leaping masses. ‘No Light, No Light’ also has real force, and although album track favourites from the debut, the likes of ‘Howl’, ‘Girl With One Eye’, ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’ and ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’ are conspicuous by their absence, this doesn’t feel lacking. ‘Dog Days Are Over’, brilliant party closer though it is, is as rough around the edges a rendition as we’ve ever heard.
There’s an almost punky edge to the odd track. It sounds daft in reference to one of the biggest pop stars of recent years, but encore-opener ‘Kiss With A Fist’ in particular is launched with a full on rock-out backing band performance, and delivered at a yelping shout by Florence herself. Mid track, Florence and her pianist slam into each other mid-stage and play fight feistily, before leaping back up to punch the air and scream that bizarre ode to twisted love. ‘Spectrum’, equally, has a certain punch, introduced by Florence pointing out the charity-shop-funding quantity of clothing on stage (“don’t throw me your shoes, you need them to get home” – gets them anyway – “shoeser”), and swinging a bra wildly above her head.
It’s not quite Florence as we know her. In truth, by the close the spectacular vocalist is clearly pretty drunk, breaking up the encore with extended rambling nonsense and general love for her assembled throngs. It does, however, explore a few sensational vocal angles, during which the backing singers take the slack and Florence’s voice wonders over the hills and explores the valleys with exceptional class. Even before tonight kicked off, there was a sense of ‘go big or go home’ about this show. While this isn’t one she’d want to stick on a live release, Florence went very, very big. In place of airy pop graces, the latest arena set up is a celebration of all this talented vocalist has become. That means one breathy, heady party.
Photos by Debbie Hickey