Despite all its grandeur and opera-house scale, Detroit’s Fox Theatre struggled to contain the equally expansive voice of Florence Welch on the night of July 31. And yet, one could scarcely imagine a more appropriate or conducive setting for Florence + the Machine, the building’s 1920s construction and opulence seeming tailor made for the group’s distinctive theatricality and neoclassicism.
Following a set by the Walkmen, which this writer unfortunately missed due to some poor drive-time planning, Florence + the Machine took the stage around 8:45 PM, opening with the effervescent harp strumming and stark key notes of “Only if for a Night”. With two drummers dueling in hammering patterns, Florence belted out the chorus amid the crashing crescendo before segueing back to a higher register in the verses. Dressed in a white and glittering gown, at once elegant and seductive, Florence skipped across the stage like a levitating fairy or spun in place as a porcelain doll in a music box. The lights illuminating her were used to great effect in crafting a palpable aura for the 13-song setlist, alternating between cool purple and blue for the more subdued numbers and warm red and magenta for the most intense moments.
As the heartbeat pulsation mounted for the second song, “What the Water Gave Me”, Florence gathered a bouquet of flowers from a fan in the crowd. Throughout the show, Florence reciprocated her audience’s graciousness, welcoming one fan to the stage for a kiss and frequently expressing her gratitude for their attendance. The crowd responded in eating up her banter and obeying her commands, such as her edict that no one actually sit in their seats. At one point, when she called for a little human sacrifice, attendees were only too happy to oblige, following her instructions to hoist one another onto their shoulders.
The third song of the night, “Cosmic Love”, saw a lone spotlight focused on Florence as she stood front and center before the mic stand in a Jesus Christ pose. Despite such austerity, a tremor shook the mezzanine and balcony as Florence hollered and yowled of her torment: “No dawn, no day / I’m always in this twilight / In the shadow of your heart”. A decided dichotomy characterized the evening, Florence’s humorous persona belying the earnest and often dark subject matter of her songs. In the middle of “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)”, Florence forsook caution and plunged onto the floor, singing as she ran amongst her fans, a security guard trying to keep up behind her. Clearly, the prodigious quality of the venue was not going to prevent Florence from ensuring an intimate experience.
Arguably the finest performance of the night was “Spectrum”, Florence and her seven bandmates arriving at their most distinct moment of collusion, veritably functioning as one organism. Anthemic in its confidence and defiance, the song saw Florence challenging her congregation to howl the refrain’s declaration of solidarity with her: “Say my name / And every color illuminates / We are shining / And we’ll never be afraid again”. The Gothic-tinged “Seven Devils” and “Heartlines” — a song Florence described as an ode to being far from home and the ones you love — also served as highlights before the one-two punch of “Shake it Out” and “Dog Days Are Over”. The former saw the crowd at its liveliest, being the song everybody and their mother knows. A zenith of sorts was reached in Florence’s delivery of the song’s most evocative lines: “I’m always dragging that horse around / And our love is pastured such a mournful sound / Tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground”. The vivid imagery, at once grotesque and affirming, appealing in its resolution, echoed throughout the theatre. “Dog Days Are Over” became an extended jam session to allow Florence the opportunity to demand her fans clap along and jump in unison.
Following “Dog Days Are Over”, the group left the stage for a few moments — Florence jokingly announcing it for what it was: the part of the show where they leave, then come back for a few more songs. The two-song encore started with the gospel devotional “Never Let Me Go”, the church choir-esque chant of the backing vocals at once eerie and affecting. “And it’s over / And I’m going under / But I’m not giving up / I’m just giving in”, Florence sang in the breakdown, the most moving moment of the song, and possibly of the night. Wrapping the evening was the bombast of “No Light, No Light”, which saw Florence herself on a drum kit, the third on the stage. It was a perfect way to resolve the night, the sentiment of finality making for an apt closer. “No light, no light / In your bright blue eyes / I never knew daylight could be so violent / A revelation in the light of day / You can’t change what stays and what fades away”, Florence sang as she and her crew gave their all for the dénouement, the crashing melody sounding like the building itself was collapsing, brick by brick.
The only gripe of the night, and it’s a minor one, is the setlist was a bit one-sided in its focus on Ceremonials, ten of the 13 songs hailing from that record. A few more songs from the group’s debut, Lungs, would’ve been nice, but that said, the setting was far more suited for the percussion-heavy palette that defines most of Ceremonials’ tracks.
Whenever you see a band live for the first time, you leave imparted with a new perspective on their recorded output that you were previously familiar with. But with Florence + the Machine, there were doubtlessly more than a few spectators who walked out of the Fox Theatre feeling they hadn’t been truly privy to the group’s capabilities, that they hadn’t experienced the magnitude of Florence’s voice, until they had been present to hear it in the flesh.