Florence + The Machine + King Princess @ Brisbane Entertainment Centre, 17.03.2023
Friday morning finds me doing the weekly shopping and at one stage parked to a very expensive-looking red sports car, its body work adorned with a strange mix of Wiccan imagery but also actual Bible quotes. Later on that evening, I can’t help but wonder whether the driver is here watching Florence + The Machine.
The Church of Florence is a strange experience, not your typical arena show, not your typical arena audience. The cult is more than alluded to during the show, it’s very much front and centre throughout. This is proper pop star reverence.
King Princess opens the show and gets to sing on the front half of Florence Welch’s white dais, the rest of her band spread out across the width of the stage but with the guitarist and bassist looking on at the dais with apparent envy, sometimes even daring to put a foot on the very edge. Both guitarist and bassist do get their moment in the spotlight, allowed to pull some rock moves on the centre platform before the night is over. If you stop to pay attention to these interactions, it all becomes a bit comical.
There’s only one problem with King Princess’s opening set tonight. The trouble is it’s a pretty big problem. The problem is that ‘1950’ is such a good song that it overshadows everything else in her set by a long way and with little effort. With its obvious Mark Ronson influences it’s her most interesting and engaging song, structurally, texturally and sonically, the one that best shows off her voice. The ovation at the end of the song is something special but fully deserved, “Stop it! Don’t stop,” she laughs. The rest of her songs are all a bit functionary and emo rock-sounding, although the excellently named “Pussy Is God” comes closest to matching some of “1950”s qualities but it’s still a long way behind.
Florence + The Machine open with Dance Fever’s “Heaven Is Here”, it’ a slightly weird and stuttering opener but also an obvious starting song. It’s the only place in the set where the two minute song would work.
The very minimal stage set has an altar of sorts at the back, every square inch taken up by flowers or draped candelabras. From a distance it looks a bit primary school harvest festival. Other than the white dais that Florence Welch has to herself for the evening, it’s the only piece of stage design. Other than forming a backdrop, it doesn’t really serve any purpose, although Welch returns to it time and again over the evening to provide the aesthetic. Even when the lights go out between songs and she takes the time out to grab her water bottle, you can see her silhouette crouched in front of the silhouette of the altar, the scene looking very cinematic in a Hammer Horror way.
Wearing a dusty pink dress and matching capelet, somewhere between Miss Haversham Boho chic and an English folk horror costume, something to complement the altar at the back of the stage, Welch is a whirling dervish from the off. With so little in the way of stage decoration, the performance is built on her outfit but allows her to present a visually powerful image with very little. Essentially, it’s just her, her outfit and the spotlights, the elements combining to present shadow, light and movement really effectively. The way the light shines through the arms of her capelet, the way her dress and capelet move when she spins, jumps or punches the air, it’s quite an impressive spectacle.
“King” follows, another cut from Dance Fever, the second in a block of seven of the albums songs in the first nine played tonight. In total we get ten of their latest album’s 14 tracks tonight. Welch teeters on the very edge of the stage, and although there’s a tiny barrier to stop her falling, it’s not going to save her if she missteps.
The backing vocals provided by the keyboard player/guitarist in “Ship to Wreck” combine well with Welch’s voice before “Free” features lots of running back and forth over the stage. The spotlights are out in force tonight but only used on the singer; the band, meanwhile get to perform in the dark for the night. There’s no introductions or acknowledgement, which is a shame as they do an excellent job and deserve some share of the acclaim, especially the aforementioned keyboard player/guitarist/backing singer, who also acts as the Florence + the Machine non-verbal hype man from the shadows at any opportunity he can, punching the air, leading the clapping when there’s an opportunity for the audience to join in . There’s also no interaction, with the band. Welch may run back and forth but as soon as she gets to one end of the stage, it’s an instant turn, rather than any engagement with the players.
It takes until the night’s sixth song, “Dog Days Are Over” before Welch takes a mid-song break to give her welcoming introduction. “If this is your first time, you may be wondering is it a cult? Am I safe? All I can say if you’re feeling apprehensive, it’s so much easier if you fully give in to it. You’ll be fully fine if you just do what I say.” Although she’s obviously not being 100% serious, unfortunately her first command to her disciples is for everyone to put their phones away, and, worse, to get everyone else to put them away. There’s only so much finger-tapping on my shoulder I can take before I’m forced to stop taking notes for most of the rest of the night. It’s only when a few phone backlights become evidently visible later on in the show that I feel I can once again type a few more words. Meantime, the middle-aged man sat next to be keeps tapping the woman in front of me’s shoulder, but from the far side so she keeps turning around to angrily glare at me. If you’re going to invade someone’s personal space you probably should at least own that invasion rather than make someone else take the blame. That’s the trouble with any cult, you always get your fair share of zealots.
Welch takes to the barrier a couple of times during the night, singing “Dream Girl Evil” (I think) and, a few songs later, “Big God” (I think – I don’t have any notes thanks to the person behind me tapping my shoulder until I put my phone away and my memory is terrible these days) to provide an up-close-and-personal show for her most dedicated fans. During one of the two songs the big video screens focus on a guy at the front, with a face of utter devotion, who looks like he’s tightly holding on to her hand and not going to easily let go.
It’s a show of two halves though.
It’s a strong opening and a strong first half but then it loses something. I’m not sure exactly what it is but something seems to change after the two songs performed at the barrier. It’s as if the large block of Dance Fever songs, albeit with a couple of older songs mixed in creates an artistic singularity but the reminder of the night loses that distinctiveness and becomes a collection of random songs that don’t necessarily flow together. The momentum built up in the first half of the set dissipates in the second hour. “Choreomania” might well be Dance Fever’s best song but sandwiched between the well-worn cover of Candi Staton’s “You’ve Got the Love” and the messy dirge of “Kiss With a Fist”, it doesn’t come close to matching the album version, even given the extra boost of Welch abandoning the stage and running through the crowd, from one side to the other, with a break at the mixing desk to perform to those on the floor but towards the back on the venue.
Then again it could just be the end of a long week. When you factor in travel, waiting time and a stop off the get food (because who would be crazy enough to choose to eat arena food) going to see a couple of bands at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre comes close to taking the same amount of time as a full day’s work. Seeing any show here is always an exhausting proposition and indeed people start to leave before the end, choosing a quick and quiet exit over the encores.
Dance Fever’s “My Love” and “Restraint” round up the main set before a three song encore. Welch tells us the story of “Never Let Me Go”, why the band haven’t played it for ten years and why they’ve chosen to resurrect it for this tour. “You had to create a sound that sounded like being dragged to the bottom of the sea,” she laments. Another Ceremonials song, “Shake It Out” follows.
At the start of the night’s final song, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”, Welch asks for sacrifices to be offered, she wants to see people on the shoulders of others being offered up and counts them out as they quickly appear in the floor section in front of her. The song’s end, one of the last moments of the show finds Welch standing in front of her altar, arms outstretched, eyes closed, and wearing a flower crown that’s been tossed up on to the stage. The show closes with what can only be described as a Wicker Man-vibe and one final image of the Cult of Florence.
For the devoted, Florence + The Machine is clearly much more than a casual fan experience. It’s a good show but not a great one. Maybe we were all just spoilt by Lorde last week.