Florence + The Machine Is High As Hope, Unobstructed and Unapologetic In Los Angeles Review: Florence + The Machine @ Walt Disney Concert Hall 5/21/18
LOS ANGELES, CA- It was an odd sense of arousal I felt when I learned that Florence and the Machine was playing the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Because Frank Gehry’s temple of acoustic delights isn’t necessarily the right venue for all artists. But for a voice as singular and powerful as that of Florence Welch, it would be more than right, it would be unreal.
The evening began a few hours before the actual show with a fairly cozy group of people gathered together in a private room for a “listening party” that served to introduce Florence and the Machine’s new album “High as Hope”. Florence herself stepped into the room for a few moments to offer her thoughts on the creative process that led to this new collection of songs. Most notable was her observation that recording this album “felt like the first time …but with ten years of experience.” How perfect is that? For anyone. Doing anything. To have a decade of effort under your belt but to still have or to rediscover the enthusiasm and curiosity of a beginner, the wonder and awe of a neophyte. That’s rad. And hearing her snort/chortle/laugh into the microphone kinda summed it up. So stunning. So talented. And yet, on so many levels, still a nervous geek like the rest of us. It was also really cool to hear how the city of Los Angeles played such a formative role in this project. For all its dysfunction, Los Angeles remains a place people flock to and it’s where Florence was able to tap into what actually turned out to be a coherent and fully functional network of artistic collaborators.
As Florence walked out to prep for her performance, the newly recorded album started to play. It was a really cool experience. To sit in a room where smartphones are literally locked away in little lead pouches and you’re surrounded by a group of people who want nothing more than to sit and focus and listen. And the album delivers.
As Florence herself noted, it’s not a significant departure or new direction from her past work. Rather, it’s a distillation and refinement of that work. Steady beats and rhythms move at a velocity and with an intention that sits in distinct but delicate tension with the powerful restraint of her voice. It’s this grounded velocity that pushes you forward while the crisp lightness of her vocals draw you upward towards floating moments of stillness, a sort of weightlessness that suggests a release from the shackles of gravity and all other burdens of our physical and mortal existence. It’s a music pointing towards liberation but a liberation born of and earned through pain. The interplay of her lyrics with the musical composition creates a sort of ecstatic fabric – but a fabric that always holds within it a thread of suffering. And it’s that subtle omnipresence of pain that may be the root source of her genius. By taking pain in the abstract and reducing it to a note, to a song, to a tangible concrete thing of beauty, she allows us to feel less alone in our own suffering. The suggestion in her art that our individual trials and tribulations are not only a universal aspect of the human condition that binds us all together but also potentially the source of a sublime and beautiful creation, that helps us all to find a sense of redemption and validation in our moments of pain. It’s an invitation to cry in and cry out; to have the courage to hurt and therein to experience a rebirth through these sonic moments of ecstatic catharsis.
So what’s it like to be Florence Welch? To be this pale, red haired creature that looks like she washed up on shore draped in a gown laced from kelp or fell from the sky naked but for a layer of stardust? To have the capacity to meld lyrics that simultaneously invoke and question God with a voice that does nothing less than demand God’s existence? Shit. I’ll never know. But for an evening, she allowed us to peer into her universe.
After a strong and sensual set by Perfume Genius, the stage was cleared of everything but the truckloads of flowers and greenery that festooned the stage. It looked like the Death of Ophelia or a staging of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. And as the crowd rose to offer a standing ovation for her entrance, Florence carefully stepped barefoot across the wood floor of the stage to approach the microphone and begin to sing.
If ever there was proof that members of our species transcend this plane of existence, it rests in the long naked feet and lanky limbs of this human vessel that carries with it Florence Welch’s extraterrestrial voice. Channeling and being channeled. Possessing and being possessed. Human. Alien. Elvin. Martian. A child dancing through a garden of her own musicians. A woman rendering bare a concert room full of souls.
In the steady force of her voice you feel how expressions of softness are sometimes the wellspring of our greatest strength and power. Regardless of volume or length, there’s an inescapably raw energy to every note. It’s like hugging someone close while they sob uncontrollably — when you can feel every muscle in their belly shudder, every organ in their body shake. That’s listening to Florence Welch. “Dog Days”, “Shake it Out”, “Ship to Wreck” … Offering the crowd the solace of what it knows while pressing upon them the energy of her new material. It’s a brilliant performance.
And throughout it all I keep marveling at what it must be like to have that level of talent. Such genius seems in many ways inaccessible. But that’s the beauty of the live performance. I/We/Her/She/Us … we can all bathe in and partake of that genius. The most brilliant artist will always aim to create the conditions for experiential production. Not a top down delivery from the pulpit. High and low are leveled out because the artist needs the audience as much as the audience craves/adores/needs the artist. The two can exist without each other but not the actual moment. The beauty of the moment demands both be present and both contribute. Florence gets that, as does her audience, and her performance is a celebration of that dialectical interplay between her and her fans.
As powerful, pure, and captivating as it is to focus on her voice, it’s an equally fantastic trip to simply watch her move. I’ve seen her perform wrapped up in designer gowns that limited her range of motion. Tonight was the opposite. No shoes. A soft light dress only tight enough to not fall off as she twirled and raced around the stage and into the crowd. Traveling through space and across time with the composure and presence of a ballet school dropout. A collection of meticulous movements that chafe at their own elegance. A perpetual effort to break free, to erupt. Shake it out. Shake it off.
In one of the rare moments where she dialogued directly with the crowd, she remarked that at the tender age of 31 she’s less drunk, there’s less glitter … but the same flowers, as always. Maybe that’s what it is. A peeling away of the unnecessary in a steady physical and sonic movement towards the purely organic. The soil. The dirt. The flowers growing up from below. It’s all already there. She’s just giving us (and herself) a cleaner view. Unobstructed. Unapologetic.
[Dedicated to the most passionate Florence fan I’ve ever met, a soul unapologetic in this life and the next, Laurie Ann Cota (1971-2016).]