The defining moment came midway through ‘Dog Days Are Over’, somewhere after Florence Welch told a placid crowd that they could ‘stand up for this one’ and before they, awkwardly, sat back down again. In the aisles of the stalls, a couple of girls rushing out to the bathroom were halted in their tracks as that familiar harp riff rang out and one, squealing, demanded that they stay for her favourite song. Jumping up and down on the spot, they initiated the clap-clap-pause-clap rhythm that so propels the track on record. Stiltedly at first but then with increasing enthusiasm, the warmth spread out over a cooly distant Sydney Opera House crowd. Florence herself eventually joined in as her Ceremonial Orchestra kept on in the background. But led by the red-headed one, that jarring instant when a crowd realises that in their zeal their handclaps have outstripped the tempo of the band carried significantly more gravity than usual. It wasn’t just the audience that wanted more boisterousness, more looseness, more fun tonight; it was Florence, too.
Whoever was on set design in the Concert Hall wasn’t to be faulted. With a spectacularly lit neo-gothic backdrop, the otherwise cavernous room was given ‘Live At The Chapel’ quality. The sound engineers, too, are to be commended for bringing intimacy to the masses. Instead, it might be with Fergus Linehan, the first ‘inside man’, as the Opera House’s Head of Contemporary Music, to curate the Vivid Live Festival, that the blame for this strangely unsatisfying show lies. Florence was the first cab off the rank in a lineup that includes a Karen O psycho-opera, Janelle Monae and her Archandroid Orchestra and The Temper Trap. It’s not hard to pick Linehan’s penchant for high drama. But as much as Florence + The Machine have been compelled to accept the arena act mantle and as much as some of their songs might lend themselves to such delivery, there is the distinct sense tonight that it might all be a bit too much.
Opening with a ‘You’ve Got The Love’ sorely missing guitars and moving onto a ‘Heartlines’ devoid of the tribal voices and drumming that make it so intriguing, Florence hardly uttered a word for the first four songs of her setlist. When she did, the timid London accent explaining that she was trying to keep it poised ‘on this grand stage’ was at odds with the unparalleled power of her voice. And that’s exactly where Florence came undone. In leaving her Machine scattered amongst the hushed audience and instead adopting grandiose strings and woodwind sections, she left her ‘comfort zone’. The zone is an enigmatic concept but tonight, its absence was real. It lay far from the Sydney Opera House, probably somewhere on the floor of an apartment in South London. That’s where she described writing ‘Cosmic Love’, hungover and on her way to being sick. The discrepancy in context might have made for an interesting personal counterpoint but manifested itself in a live performance lacking the temerity and vivaciousness out of which these songs were born.
To be sure, Florence delivered. When the whole extravaganza was pared back to voice and harp or keys, the former never failed to delight. But it was only rarely that the brilliance of these less cluttered moments, like a stunning ‘Between Two Lungs’, was matched by the swelling strings of the Ceremonial Orchestra. More often than not, it felt like Florence was ready and raring to take songs higher and louder but a well-drilled, rarefied orchestra wouldn’t comply. Waving his baton high above even statuesque Florence, the conductor seemed to sap the spontaneity and energy from typically anthemic songs. Orchestral augmentation is a tough thing to get right. Here, Florence appeared hemmed in rather than liberated, oddly subjugated rather than commanding. By the time ‘Never Let Me Go’ provided a rousing encore, the dynamic had been re-engineered and Florence’s new, whiz-bang, high-falutin Machine had been dialled up to the right atmospheric setting. The problem was that it took that long to get woman and machine humming along in tune.
Florence + The Machine – Never Let Me Go