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The Greats Are Great, Even When They’re Not

April 12th, 2010

Florence and the Machine – Terminal 5 – April 9, 2010

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Florence Welch strutted to the stage dressed in a flowing white camisole, evoking something like a deconstructed swan, equally beautiful and breaking. Her knobby knees attached to skinny legs attached to high heels, which click-clacked to the microphone in front of a sold-out Terminal 5 packed with people who had come to see this tiny girl with the enormous pipes. Her performance would prove more workmanlike than mercurial, battling a worn-out voice through songs designed for her normally fighter-plane vocals. But like all the greats, Welch would not quietly bow to the wear of the road. Instead, we saw a different woman, profoundly animated, willing to work with us and through the night.

For clarity’s sake, saying Welch was “battling a worn-out voice” is roughly analogous to saying you stayed in the shittiest five-star hotel in Monte Carlo. She has push-you-back-in-your-seat, dunk-from-the-foul-line, big-enough-to-sink-this-city ability. Early in the night on “Kiss with a Fist,” the singer colored the domestic-violence metaphors by testing the top of her range in the song’s final third. Moving through album-stunners “Coffins” and “Between Two Lungs,” she eased off the throttle, while pointing and gesturing at the first few rows of people. It only became clear how much of a vocal struggle Welch was engaged in when she altered the melody on “Drumming Song.” Not coincidentally, the song’s centerpiece was a stunning breakdown where Welch, heels off now, skipped through the middle of the stage while barking an improvised second movement. The greats are great, even when they’re not.

Before “Cosmic Love,” Welch mentioned that she had some family in the audience. Of course this lead to a final denouement where the crowd insisted on being dubbed family, too. She raised her glass to us, and a thousand people raised their digital cameras in return. After closing with a carbonated “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch returned for an encore of “You’ve Got the Love” and “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).” In one of the last lyrics of the night, she wailed into the dark: “This is a gift/ It comes with a price.” A song about animal sacrifice could have been no more appropriate for the tiny woman who stayed long after her band left to bow, wave and thank the people who came to see her. —Geoff Nelson