Florence + the Machine. Red Rocks. 08.03.15
Only a few hours after I wrote about Hozier performing one of the most intimate sets I had ever experienced at Red Rocks, Florence Welsh completely redefined the word ‘intimacy’. The 28-year-old vocalist of Florence + the Machine had been photographed in meltdown mode at the Montreal airport just days prior, so it came as no shock when she decided do to something a little different on the last date of her current tour. Welsh has been pretty honest about her personal challenges with the road. She’s described feelings of loneliness and exhaustion that border on depression. I’m sure she found solace in the fact that her vocal chords held strong this time around (she damaged them not long before her Red Rocks show in 2012), but she seemed slightly unraveled by the time she took the stage for a special acoustic set on Monday night.
Large scale performances and frayed nerves usually equal disaster, but as Florence’s emotions danced around her windswept red curls, she used her sweet sorrow to create an air of melancholy that infected the crowd during her stripped-down set. The audience gained another ounce of empathy with each breath…thus absorbing her sadness and eradicating any loneliness she might have been feeling. The science was exact, so by the time the 12-piece ensemble went into full effect for ‘the electric era’, we had become her friends, her confidants, and her choir. The collective energy was enough to bring the rocks crumbling down on our heads, but lucky for us (and the City of Denver) Florence held things together with the pure power of voice. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky during the entire set, but in a season that has seen its fair share of strong weather, Florence + the Machine gave every drop of rain, gust of wind and bolt of lightning a run for its money. The calm before the storm just made the storm that much stronger.
The nine song acoustic set opened with “Cosmic Love”. A barefoot Florence shared the stage with Tom Monger, who hid behind his harp. Simple spotlights lit the rocks as the backup singers made their entrance. “All This and Heaven Too” couldn’t have been performed in a more perfect setting. Addressing her current state of mind, Florence introduced “Breaking Down” as an apt song for how she was feeling. She expressed joy for being back at Red Rocks and being able to do what she loves, but she also reflected on the 20+ flights she’d been on recently. As the first selection from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful bled into “Shake It Out”, I couldn’t help but think back on the Hozier show again. I half expected the amphitheater to become a stone cathedral during his hit song, but it took a fiery Londoner with jetlag to accomplish what he could not. Her band snuck onto the stage some time during the first few songs. They added layers to the acoustics as the crowd became a choir. And slowly, but surely, the Florence + the Machine concert became nothing less than a spiritual experience.
Performing acoustically in front of almost ten thousand people is a risky thing to do, and it wasn’t without its faults on Monday night, but the minor imperfections (like the backup singers falling out of sync) just added to the intimate experience. “Heartlines”, “Ship to Wreck” and the Cold War Kids cover were all great, but it was “Only If for a Night” that really solidified the concert as a family affair. The decision to include the song was based on a dream of her dead grandmother (“so real it was like death undone”) that she’d had the night before. The story added weight to a song that’s already heavy as hell, so it was fitting that it led into the first electric selection of the night — Calvin’s Harris’ “Sweet Nothing”.
The so-called ‘electric era’ moved forward (and sideways…and back and forth…with hands in the air) through “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” and “What Kind of Man”. Those selections from the new album translated well on the big stage. Feeding off the energy of her newfound family, Florence pulled out her freak flag and let it take flight. She was in the audience…she was singing in the face of shell-shocked men…she was jumping and twitching and dancing(?)…she was going on and on about the sky and nature and a bunch of other things I didn’t quite follow. For some reason Nick Swardson popped into my head at that point. He does a bit about wanting a British kid “because everything sounds better in a British accent.” His theory held true on Monday night as Florence channeled Shirley MacLaine and started speaking about new agey spirituality. I was buying it because of the way she was saying it. My pessimism went right out the window with every British-accented word that came out of her mouth.
The main set closed with “Dog Days Are Over”. The crowd went crazy. All traces of an isolated individual were erased from the face of Florence Welch. Sure, the happiness we all shared with her during that song was a fleeting feeling, but at least we were able to share that short time with her. If she would have come out and performed a concert for fans, she would have been miserable. She’d been doing that for too long. So instead, she came out and did what she needed to do. She shared. She let people in. She made friends. And only then did she perform for them.
The encore included an acoustic version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and you could see Florence was already retreating back into her own space. The band joined her for a couple more from the new album and then the show was over. She went backstage to be alone. We all went home to go to sleep. It was hard for me to get up early for work the next day, but I’m sure it was even harder for her to get on another plane. But at least she was able to spend her last night on the road at a place like Red Rocks…and at least that plane was the one to take her home.
All This and Heaven Too
Queen of Peace
Shake It Out
Ship to Wreck
Hospital Beds (Cold War Kids)
Only If for a Night
Sweet Nothing (Calvin Harris)
How Big How Blue How Beautiful
What Kind of Man
Dog Days Are Over
Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young cover)