It’s been roughly seven years since Florence Welch first teamed up with her friend Isabella “Machine” Summers to form the beginnings of what would become one of the biggest rock groups of the last ten years. That’s long enough for people to forget that Florence and the Machine started as, and has always been, a group effort–despite the overwhelming charisma and vocal prowess of its English frontwoman. It’s never been a one woman show.
Tuesday evening Welch and her loyal Machine stepped onto the stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl, carrying with them an almost burdening understanding of the weight and electricity their music must’ve held with the hundreds of fans sprawled in front of them. How could they not? Even if the audience had happened to be dormant, Welch would have still enchanted them just as easily. For most of the night she was an elegant blur of possessed emotion, wildly spinning and gesticulating, her flaming locks flying around her during her performance of “Ship to Wreck” and “Rabbit Heart.”
But between songs, Welch’s ordinarily powerful voice dropped to a quiet whisper, her heavy British accent shining through an almost gleeful formality–as when she politely asked the crowd to fill-in as her choir on the thundering chorus of “Shake It Out.” They happily obliged, and as Welch bellowed out the song’s impassioned lines, she held out her hands to gracefully conduct her newfound choir–while her five back-up singers emptied their lungs into the night.
One of the things that has always given Florence and the Machine’s music that definitive sucker-punch of emotion has been the age of its members–specifically Welch as its songwriter. There is something comforting and ultimately moving in witnessing her growth as a human being through her lyricisms, and its that maturity that reveals a wisdom that extends beyond her humble twenty-nine years. Live, Welch is the epitome of self-confidence and power, her vocal control is jaw-dropping and drips with a passion that saturates everything in its wake; but what is even more astounding is the way she brings to life the grace and elegance of the band’s music.
An acoustic performance of “Cosmic Love,” (arguably one of the most beautiful songs created, and revealed by Welch to have been written under the cloud of a brutal hangover) emphasized this, as the young singer poured out her soprano voice onto the crowd. Between the lush twinkling sound of Tom Monger’s fingers dancing across the strings of his harp, and Robert Ackroyd’s quieted strums, it was impossible to not have goosebumps by the end of it.
After dedicating “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” to the American sky that inspired it, Welch recited the song’s poetic murmurings as silver trumpets blasted in reply, which elicited screams of approval from the crowd. Those same trumpets (and trombone) returned on “Queen of Peace” as they shrieked their grandiose melody against the lush vibration of drums and Welch’s croons.
The band returned for a two song encore at the end of the night, which included stellar performances of “What Kind of Man” and “Drumming Song,” but their execution of “Dog Days Are Over” just a few minutes previous was the true finale of the night. As Welch danced onstage tambourine in hand, purple backlights pulsed to the roar of percussion and the sound of hundreds of people clapping along.
“Now Santa Barbara, I want everyone to take something off and wave it above your head like a flag,” Welch yelled into the crowd, and she, as well as every other soul in the Santa Barbara Bowl did just that. “And with it, take off something you don’t need. Take off something you want to let go of, because Santa Barbara you have been released.”
Then Florence and the Machine leveled the amphitheatre with one last rapturous scream of the song’s chorus, and like her dog days, it was over.
There has always been a brash expectation of greatness from Florence and the Machine, and consistently they’ve exceeded those expectations with every album. Welch’s lyrics are more akin to poetry than songwriting, with a voice that can jump from a soulful tenor to a celestial soprano in a flicker, and a backing band that soundtracks her verses with the most epic baroque anthems. Welch has quickly grown to fill the shoes that she’s placed alongside her idols–idols she has long been compared to.
But it is on this tour, with this last album, that this 29-year-old from Camberwell, England has finally elevated herself to the plane that artists like Kate Bush, Bjork and Stevie Nicks exist on. Hell, had she been born a decade or so earlier, she would’ve given them a definite run for their money. But thankfully for us, she wasn’t–because this is the moment people will be talking about decades from now as they attempt to describe the ecstasy and magnificence of the days in which Florence and the Machine reigned.
And each of us will feel a shiver of longing and thanksgiving, that we were there to witness it–and if you haven’t yet, now’s the time.
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger opened the night, offering the early crowds a healthy dose of avant-garde funk and psychedelic pop. Taking cues from a more coherent version of Tame Impala, infused with an almost bluesy undertone, the trio dazzled with lo-fi guitar rumblings and colossal wall-of-sound melodies.
Words & Photography: Steven Ward
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger
Florence and The Machine