Florence and the Machine should be at home in a classy, historic venue like Radio City Music Hall. Lead singer Florence Welch has a bold, brassy voice that is flattered by large, echoey halls, and her band’s music is a fine balance of delicate textures and bombastic rhythms ideally suited to the room’s intimate-yet-grandiose scale. Still, despite Welch’s remarkable voice and considerable star presence, last night’s performance never quite gelled, and songs that should have been transcendent were grounded by awkward pacing and staging.
The show, which was filmed for the cable music network Fuse, suffered in part from lighting intended for the cameras rather than the live audience. The lights onstage and throughout the hall were far too bright early on in the set, scrambling the usual social cues of a pop concert and leaving much of the audience unsure of what to do during the opening song, “Only If for a Night.” It should have been dramatic and theatrical but seemed oddly tentative, as if the audience happened to be present for a soundcheck or dress rehearsal. The lighting dimmed somewhat as the set progressed, but it never seemed quite right. An artist like Welch, with her grand gestures and ornate Biblical imagery, is best served by staging that draws crowds into her world. The cameras and lighting broke her spell before it was even cast.
Florence and the Machine’s audience wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this music in concert. Though the band’s big gospel rock hits like “Shake It Out” and “Dog Days Are Over” inspired churchy clapping, Welch had to draw out the crowd’s physicality, asking women to get up on their boyfriends’ shoulders for “Rabbit Heart” and for the audience at large to stand, dance and hop in place at other moments in the set. The show was much more fun when the fans indulged the singer, but it’s not hard to imagine that many would have just stayed in their seats without her instructions or kept their engagement with the performance limited to having a friend photograph them standing with their back to the stage, as if they were posing in front of Mt. St. Florence. (I saw this happen at least eight times just in the space around my seat.)
The band’s setlist featured most of their best material but the pacing was strange – particularly during the encore, when two of the group’s strong recent singles, “Never Let Me Go” and “No Light, No Light,” came off like an anticlimactic afterthought after the extended, crowd-pleasing run through “Dog Days Are Over.” Though Welch sang beautifully and came off like a true star in her flowing white robe – she looked like a Biblical superhero – many songs that should’ve been epic show-stoppers fell flat due to overly busy arrangements.
“Spectrum” and “No Light, No Light,” both essentially stadium-sized gospel numbers, were hobbled by plodding percussion that drained momentum from songs that would’ve soared higher with clean four-to-the-floor beats. “Lover to Lover,” another gospel rocker, came off much better, largely because the ensemble simplified the arrangement and gave Welch more space to show off her voice.
When Florence and the Machine nail their dynamics, they are astounding and rank among today’s best acts in the world. Their Radio City show suggested that the group are still in the process of learning how to showcase their own best qualities.
“Only if for a Night”
“What the Water Gave Me”
“All This and Heaven Too”
“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”
“Leave My Body”
“Lover to Lover”
“Shake It Out”
“Dog Days Are Over”
“Never Let Me Go”
“No Light, No Light”