Monday, September 21, 2015

Florence + Machine, Manchester Arena September 18th 2015 9/10

I'm not usually drawn to arena shows, craving intimacy, and the evening started problematically. A bizarre problem with the venue's new seating meant that I missed most of The Staves' set, despite arriving 45 minutes before their stage time. The Watford sisters' star is in the ascendency, progressing from playing The Deaf Institute last autumn to Manchester's much larger Albert Hall next month. Yet, support slots in larger venues are often disheartening experiences: I remember that scant attention was paid to Haim when they supported Florence on her Ceremonials tour in December 2012 in Liverpool. Alas, chatter overwhelmed The Staves' gorgeous vocal harmonies, as a portion of the audience apparently decided that they were more interested in talking to their neighbours than experiencing new music. I arrived in my new seat just before the start of Florence's set, irritated I'd had to get involved in a protracted complaint with Manchester Arena, and annoyed I'd forgotten my camera (hence for the first time here posting photographs taken on a smart phone). Fortunately, live music once again proved  transformational.

The set opened in spirited fashion with What The Water Gave Me, followed by Ship To Wreck, but it took Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) from her first album to transport me. Florence urged the audience to 'get as high as you can!' delighting us by running around the edge of the arena; suddenly the size of the venue telescoped. It's fascinating that Florence Welch is such a adept communicator on stage: she sounds almost reserved between songs, being the middle class daughter of a Harvard educated professor of Renaissance Studies (thus explaining her moniker). Yet, she's able to channel art for mass appeal, engaging an audience of non-specialists by dancing barefoot with almost demonic energy. This movement reached its pinnacle in the close of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Such is her enthusiasm that she broke her foot leaping off the stage at Coachella in April, though fortuitously recovered in time to stand in for Dave Grohl as a widely acclaimed Glastonbury head liner.

Despite this, The Guardian said of that festival: her "behaviour.. wobbles perilously along the line that separates the grandiose gesture from ridiculousness." Excess can surely be excused when the indifference towards the support act here demonstrates the challenge of engaging 21,000 people in various stages of inebriation and interest in music. So, in the joyous Dog Days Are Over, Florence asked the audience to participate by each removing an item of clothing. In addition to totally committed stagecraft, the past two albums were conceived orchestrally with grandiose spaces in mind. Indeed, The Machine justified their title with tight, totally committed accompaniment, the six backing musicians deploying harp, organ, brass, guitar and drums. Ignoring the five backing singers, she cited the lack of choir as an excuse to once again involve us in joining the singing of Shake It Off.

Florence has personal significance in being only the second popular musician I came to appreciate in 2010, when a chance meeting on a train to the Arctic allowed my musical horizons to expand exponentially. Back then, my classical sensibilities led to concerns about her security of pitch: as it happens her vocals now sound faultless. Key to her appeal, though, is that the theatrical flair of her performance channels authentic, personal emotions. She sings of dark subjects, such as relationship breakdown, and has dealt with depression. Florence therefore has a deep understanding of the importance of art as both an escape, and a means of coming to terms with a difficult world. As the 90 minute set all too quickly drew to a close with the encores What Kind of Man and Drumming Song, there was a sense of release of negative feelings, and an almost religious shared experience of altered reality: it's no coincidence the last album was named Ceremonials.

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