As beldams of the black arts go, America has given you the dauntless Sister of No Mercy known as Patricia Morrison, thrill-killing Lydia Lunch, horror hostess Elvira, demonatrix demigoddess Gitane Demone, death-rock doula Dinah Cancer, and, of course, the greatest of all original astral apsaras: Stevie Nicks. In that same spirit, England has always lit the coven path with the darkest bright-lights ever to overshadow any mortal man’s impending doom: the ghost-dancing goth gallerina Ann Marie Hurst, the urban pantheist cathouse queen Danielle Dax, the marching violet Rosie Garland, the Betelgeusean way-making warrior that is Stacey Heale, and the Spectrum-stereotype spell-breaker herself, Nicola Musgrove. Australia gave us the aural astronomy of Lisa Gerrard and Scotland the strawberry switchblade known as Rose McDowall. Detroit and Hull, East Yorkshire split cultural custodial claims to the Stateless lady Lene Lovich, and she just goes to show how grand it truly can be when Merry Ole and Make It So merge in one maven. All this yesteryear yea-saying aside, there has never yet been a magical manouche quite like Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. When she brought her Belt of Venus bellows to Atlanta’s Ameris Bank Amphitheatre on Wednesday, September 21st for the muliebrous spectacularity of her current Dance Fever tour, it was the most welcome of all uncivil dawns for every ear and heart fortunate enough to chance upon this choral conjuration.
Sorceresses, vixens, and viragos have been immortalized in archetypal rock by spellbound subjects since time immemorial. This is unlikely to change even as the augury and alchemy of the world slinks ever further into the deep reaches of the forest in response to the algorithm. The Hollies and The Eagles willfully warped their shared wicked ways even further over “witchy women.” AC/DC fell gleefully under the “Witch’s Spell,” Jethro Tull warned of the “Witch’s Promise,” and Donovan skipped with all due priestess poetry into the “Season Of The Witch” without so much as a by-your-leave. Marianne Faithfull, charred-voice chanteuse-in-charmeuse who so beguiled one Mr. Michael Philip Jagger as to become synonymous with Pegasus-winged paramours for all time, wrote her own autobiographical “Witches’ Song.” Kate Bush, the keel on which ethereal enchantresses have been best built since forever, was unafraid to be the inamorata responsible for “Waking The Witch.” Fleetwood Mac very successfully resurrected “Rhiannon,” and in so doing, lyrically learned legions of unlashed lasses why seeking squawhood the way society told you to do might not be the ticket they taught you it was. Ms. Welch herself gave us “Which Witch,” which stands to this day as her orphic maiden speech on the matter.
However, we have never had an echo-enchantress in music from this precise place and time before; Florence Welch is somehow the 16th and 18th centuries theatrically married, and fully medieval. She is baroque, Bavarian, and tinsel-Transylvanian too. She stands evenly astride three aesthetic time zones and her skirts are infinitely the fuller for it. The woods out of which Welch appears to have derived are much older and much more sentient – and she has very discernibly drunk this in. Women like this are besieged by the world in a different way. In turn, they tend to take a distinctive and more permanent vengeance. The war Welch will whisper-to-a-whirl is one of wonder and wayfaring.
Most astute people inside and outside of music fully realize that the sinister aspects of the witch as a folkloric figure only ever emerged out of a patriarchal Christianity-based fear of the generative power of unrestrained womanhood combined with a purposeful bastardization of the long-valued pagan wisdom of the crone. Now that smart society is done with co-signing on that bit of nonsense, we can move on to the enjoyment of remembering what our ancestors always knew: it has only ever been and will only ever be foremothers at the frontlines of any fathomless or fruitful fray. You should see Florence + The Machine not just because they are among the most accomplished and artistically authentic woman-led bands in professional music today, but because this is spiritual muscle memory no matter where you come from.
This night, Atlanta was double-graced for doña deities in the gamine glitter of opener King Princess, who lynx-glided out looking and sounding anything but “Too Bad/Cursed,” as she gangsta-enforced the notion that ladydom and leadership have never been mutually exclusive or in any way concurrently definable, least of all by anyone wearing or espousing the manacles of the male gaze. The sacred steel of “Pussy Is God” followed by the lesbianism/lesbianage of “1950” sent her wonderstruck worshipers into euphoric, communion-bent echolalia, while “I Hate Myself, I Want To Party” was soft and surprising, like chocolate Skittles. King Princess should be on your radar for the low-timbre electric silence in her voice, for the blushing down from her bad-boy balcony she did for Ralph Lauren this year, and for the souped-up Superleggera she makes of her own eclectic élan vital.
Those that are already well familiar with the witchery on the loud-lungs side of the weald know that, offstage, Florence Welch is known for living in a bohemian musée imaginaire of her own invention, complete with a regal volume of Gunne Sax dresses and a smattering of shimmering viscera and tableaux, an antique rose wandering the world in Edwardian boots. Onstage, she towers barefoot in a diaphanous nude gown and pastoral diadems, wielding an ancient voice that calls unscathed from a past only the lake monsters can see – a baying, twirling tarot card come to life, and one that has walked straight out of the oracular tapestry of the occult. Welch’s voice on the recordings should qualify as divination-by-decibel. However, if you have never heard her sing live, prepare for goosebumps in places where you were not aware you could get them – such as the inside of your biceps, the back of your knees, and the middle of your throat. She climbs her notes like vertical stairwells, taking whole steps two at a time, and her voice itself is the scrim on which you as the listener draw salacious, unspeakably vulnerable scribbles about every pocket of purgatory you have ever traversed. She allows this. She incites and commands this.
The physical backdrop of the Dance Fever tour is not to be under-noted here either. From a slight distance, what appears to be bone-glowing directly behind her is a lace, lit castle that might be ice or could very well be crystals. Upon drawing closer, the vision crystallizes to make plain that the chilled luminosity is actually a white banquet table, with enormous columnar candles of varying heights, like spires, all dripping ivory waterfalls. A harp player sits beside, helping set the net for the physical embodiments of Welch’s acrobatic scripturiency wherein her owl howls are live-looped to the BPM of her bouts of literal chest beating. She pummels herself and her path through the urban cravings and danger boys of these songs, sometimes even stabbing herself in the stomach with an imaginary dagger in order to make it. Here is a woman fully aware that there are plentiful places inside any woman which can only be survived at knifepoint.
For the audience, the experience of this amounts to an active witnessing of a private sonic-seance through which Welch wends her wild way through a singing-out of all which might, if a single feather had fallen another way in life, have absconded with her will and her ways forward. The stakes in these songs could not possibly be any higher.
No one needed to wait for the release of Dance Fever (QRO review) in May of 2022, or watch her pirouette out in a half-moon, rolling fast like storm clouds across the ground, amongst her vulcanized votaries during “Choreomania,” to know and admire the unabridged joy this night-filled woman takes in dancing. She tells the Atlanta audience that she wishes this show and the whole of this tour to represent a “resurrection of dance,” that she wishes all attendees to merrily “dance themselves to death,” then showing by example that she will both preside over and participate in this ritual of movement, and that it is one in which she intends to raze every single thing that ever let you down.
Every Florence + The Machine song has a chimerical protagonist, and this fact gains voltage by virtue of one getting the sense that each lyric is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. She’s every beheaded or burned woman ever to pledge feral fealty and she thereby makes music a backward-facing predictive science with her Grimm-snarl approach. Paradoxically and utterly appropriately, whilst her in-born instrument is the solid, impenetrable bedrock underlying every beat of her beautiful bizarrerie, Florence Welch herself runs riotously amok for the entirety of her shows, crowning other witch women in the front row, skipping along the edge of the barricade, sometimes standing on it, to get fully in the faces of her enthralled story-siblings.
Her beleaguered security team trails behind her as close as they can, with a protective hand on the small of her back, touching the same space her ragged mermaid tresses scrape and sway like tendrils with their own tunes to attend to, ready to snatch her back if an acolyte gets too entranced – though that exact level of thaumaturgical transport is the only outcome Welch could accept as ‘job done.’ At one point in the show, she sprints through the crowd to the soundboard in the middle, very much without permission, and scares her minders quite silly with the immediacy of her willful exposure, patron-proffered pansies prettily arranged atop her head and the wave of her chiffon witch-wings billowing behind her to catch-taunt their lost breath.
The follow-you firmaments of first-song “Heaven Is Here” made me unexpectedly grateful to have accidentally brought a too-big bag that I needed to run back to the car. Bolting the good half-mile back to Lot C at Ameris, it was my solo privilege – for there was no one out anywhere around, utterly edible eeriness – to hear Welch’s tribological tour de force of a voice ricocheting across the tops of swaying, silhouetted treetops, a raft of oak trees doing their deciduous best to brush the cheek of the night-turned nocturne against the sky to the inch-perfect tempo of her tenor. Having none of the usual ant-trail of humanity to utilize for tracing my steps back to the heavily wooded sound-sphere of Ameris, I found I needed none. I could follow Florence’s voice and find my way–which I did and wish I could do again.
“King” befits its monarchic name when it pours out of Welch’s mouth like sovereign sparks in the real. Women are commonly pejoratively referenced as overlords when they take up the same amount (or more) of space as men. Here, she unapologetically sings about what it means to stand guard over her own nymphaeum, the prices imposed by others onto female ambition, and how few tree-tithing gents there really are who can understand a song about belonging with you but never to you.
Welch only covered the two bookending chapters of her breath-stealing “Odyssey” songs, those being “What Kind Of Man” (The Odyssey, Chapter 1) and “Ship To Wreck” (The Odyssey, Chapter 4), however, any sound-sailors who have not yet enjoyed the full film by Vincent Haycock should treat themselves at earliest convenience. It is a Circean experience, and few indeed are the phantasm-women of today who sell poetry and photography books at their rock-show merch tables while spending their spare time making meticulous art films out of their most poached passions and moments of emotional agnosia.
When she performs “Free” – in the video for which she wears a dress by the underworld-empyrean Susie Cave of The Vampire’s Wife, yet another combustible coven-creature – a jewel-like pause comes most vibrantly to plosive life in her voice. “Dream Girl Evil” sung live is electric amethyst–enraptured and frowzy. “Girls Against God” is enhanced in physio-symbolic meaning by the reverse crucifixions Welch embodies in her performative stances and the tattooed cross on her hand, as well as in the many varying types of siren-stigmata she enshrines in her verses. The dielectric intake of her own amplified breath at the start of “Daffodil,” essentially a miniature garden-opera devoted to the Gaia within, felt like a form of spirometry in my own chest. When she sings, “I’m not bad, I’m not good, I drank every sky that I could,” you remember that, no matter what religion you follow or ignore, all life began in a garden. Her immediately engulfing “Dog Days Are Over” has become a hospitable, open dogma all its own, and one with its own reputational dance card. After the conclusionary note of this, her original big-hex incantation, she verbally halted the crowd to politely enjoin everyone to put their phones away, simultaneously entreating them, preciously and sincerely, to tell each other that they love and have missed one another. Even the tiny breaks in Florence Welch’s setlist were great art like this.
Those who have never seen Florence + The Machine in a concert setting, or even those who have not understood what they have thus far encountered via the recordings and videos, may mistake her choreo-poems and gossamer for some kind of gypsy grundyism. This would be a laughable tragedy. Florence Welch is, first and foremost, funny. She tells loving stories of spending half her touring life in America and what it means to be “English person drunk” for a number of formative, unforgiving years. She is the living, glimmering disassembly of the dusty idea that book girls are indoor girls. One of her great gifts as an orator of audience banter is that, just as with her songs, she is telling you sandpaper truths with a smile and insisting that you digest the grit as the granulated sugar of life it absolutely is. She discusses the importance of “the right to choose” in all things and relates it to her own selection of song-chasing for her career, making a majestic joke about being grateful it worked out since she has “no other skills whatsoever in the world besides music.” No one on Earth can beat the British for dry humor about hyetal subjects and it is clear Welch has let this natural ability drive not just her style of art-making and womanhood, but her mercenary advance on life as a whole.
Like such a soldier, percussion is audibly and visibly important to Welch throughout all of her shows and recordings. “My Love” is stopped midway through in Atlanta because the drumbeat was not right. Starting all over with a shrug at her band and a giggle at us, Welch explains that everything about her has a work-in-progress tincture to it. By the time she arrives at the tachycardiac Lolicon of “Shake It Out,” she is only half-hyperbolizing when she says, by way of goodnight, “So many gifts for us this evening; we only needed just a few human sacrifices, we are so well fed, Atlanta!”
Grumbletonians in the gutter press and beyond will no doubt growl their usual missed-point grist about the cathedral ceremonials of this sulfuric songstress. There are so many reasons to ignore those mumbled moieties. Florence + The Machine is a master class in effortless head voice. As both spellcaster and spell-breaker, Florence Welch is Loreena McKennitt meets Kate Bush on a sacramental sidecar conducted by Siouxsie Sioux, Diamanda Galas, and Zola Jesus. As it is the intractable voices of women that have been most disfigured, disenfranchised, and encumbered by the Father Knows Best layout of the world, and as this fact extends in an unimpeded line of heinous hysterectomies of what are perceived as the “heresies” of independent women across historical situations ranging from the Salem of old to the Iran of today and much further back, the significance of Florence Welch in this or any other social landscape is fifty-fold magnified. This is the woman the world used to recognize no matter where you hid her face. This is the woman the world has been desperate to remember and reunite with. She is no mother, she is no bride, she is king.
Florence + The Machine will be dousing the U.K., Ireland, Europe, and Australia with necromantic ensorcelment through November 2022 and into the top of next year.
Setlist1. Heaven Is Here
3. Ship To Wreck
6. Dog Days Are Over
7. Girls Against God
8. Dream Girl Evil
9. Prayer Factory
11. What Kind Of Man
12. Morning Elvis
16. Kiss With A Fist
17. Cosmic Love
18. My Love
Encore20. Never Let Me Go
21. Shake It Out
22. Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)