It’s 10:30am and I am hard at work, bent over, sweating, laying down new hardwood floors when I receive a text from a friend asking if I was interested in going to the Florence and the Machine concert that night. It was one of the quickest, “yes’s,” I’ve given in my life. A few text messages and a phone call later my roommate had done up a care package containing a more suitable outfit for the event than my construction clothes. Fast forward half a day I am united with my clothes which I smoothly switched into while sitting in my front seat while parked in a shopping center parking lot. We grab beer and a burritos to-go. A thirty minute car ride, two potato burritos, and five beers later we are walking into the venue with thousands of other Florence fans. First order of business; hit the bathroom. Second order of business; beer. With a large, cold, boulevard wheat in our hands and the watch face reading something close to 7:30pm we make our way to the standing pit area.
I have to admit I know virtually nothing about Grimes. I had heard just a few bits of her music on an NPR radio interview while driving home one day and as far as I could gather she seemed a genuine character and that’s good enough for me to give your music the ol college try. Because of our shenanigans we missed roughly the first two songs and came in to a pretty lively performance. In addition to herself; Grimes had three performers on stage. One did back-up vocals (apparently an artist herself but was unable to capture the name), some guitar work, and danced while the other two performers were strictly dancers. The crowd at this point is enjoyably tame. No shoving for position or being ran over by that one person who “has a friend up front” and secretly is holding hands with an entire high school band who come parading on into everybody’s personal space’s personal space. We are comfortably standing stage left and from what I can tell, seeing as I do not know any Grimes songs, the venue has done a great job of balancing sound to all sides of the crowd.
So I enjoyed Grimes. Being 7 beer in I was nearly at optimal drunk level where I shut-out everyone in the audience and completely zone in on the performance. The sound was similar to many of today’s electronic pop artists. Heavy venue bass with computer generated instruments arranged into repetitive verse arrangements that burst into extravagant choruses. I have to admit that I have viewed modern electronic performances with a certain level of disdain. With all the music being generated on computers there is no real way to make certain that the performer standing behind a control board, spinning knobs and pressing buttons, is really doing anything but simply making show. It is with that disdain that I was pleasantly surprised that Grimes seemed to actually be in control of her music. She would come away from her master control-esque setup to dance and then frantically make her way back to ensure she gets the timing of the change exact. I spent a good amount of her performance being intoxicated with curiosity, and beer, about the logistics of the equipment she was using and what it allowed her to do. As a skeptic I would say she genuinely cares about the legitimacy of her music making or else she is a great actress and either way I was drawn in and to that end she had succeeded as a performer. The dancers were a nice touch but at times felt somewhat awkward and almost like a last-minute, budget friendly, attempt of creating stage presence because in all honesty I imagine all of the talent and needed stage presence of Grimes the band/musician comes from the small statured, short blonde haired, girl who dresses like a woman in the graphic novel turned movie, Tank Girl.
If you have never heard Grimes’ voice it is…..unique. But also familiar. I could best describe it as some form of Asian female-voiced band or songwriter. It was well into one of her songs that I first heard her voice. It was an intensely high-pitched voice. A pitch you aren’t expecting from a live performance as it was so high, almost unnatural, and so well maintained. Impressive as it was you really got the full range of her singing voice within about two songs. Her words, to me, were indistinguishable. (Again I also do not know any of her music but it also reinforced the feeling of Asian pop music as I don’t understand any Asian languages) Rather her voice seemed to act as another instrument in, what I recalled was, an electronic soundscape.
In the brief moments that she took to address the crowd she did so in a quick, shy, and out-of-breath way. She was polite, thankful, and seemed genuine. From her NPR interview I recall her talking about getting nervous playing live and everything seemed to be as it should be. What I take away from seeing Grimes is a genuine artist who is faithful to her craft and audience. Where she could just dance and follow an instrumental track she seems to believe in the need to play one’s music; even if it’s just pressing a button to change from verse to chorus and vice versa. (She did more than that). Unfortunately I wasn’t converted to her music but I was entertained and enjoyed watching her work her craft.
Florence + Machine
One long bathroom line followed by one exponentially longer beer line later we were back at the standing area. Only this time the standing area was the full realization of the shell it was for Grimes. The packed amphitheatre resembled one large wave of people stretching all the way back and up to the horizon. In my older years I have become less driven to push my way through people who had the sense to arrive early or the willpower to wait and have a better position than myself. That said, and as I said before, the sound in the venue would prove to be so superior that positioning was not necessary for full auditory enjoyment. As for with Grimes we were stage left and we eagerly anticipated the arrival of, what I have come to see her as, an icon.
So a quick reprieve from the show review. Since sophomore year of high school I have been going to shows regularly and in my post-high school years I spent some years in bands. I’ve been to a lot of shows. I’ve been to sold-out arena shows and I’ve been to mildew infested basement DIY punk shows. In an attempt to help filter my wants and needs at an age where more responsibility is needed I have opted to save my show-going to shows that I know will be an experience. It’s the same method I have adopted for venturing to the movie theatre. I’ve been blessed to have been able to see all but a select few bands that I have ever wanted to see in my life. These days I am looking for pure talent, for creative ingenuity, and someone who cares about the fan experience as much as the fans care about them. Someone who has the talent to improvise and fully express themselves through their craft beyond just reciting the songs from the album. Enter, Florence + Machine.
To the stage first came the Machine. From memory this consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitar player, a harp player, an organ player, a keyboard player, and six back-up singers, three of whom also doubled as trombone and other horn players. Once all were in place from stage left emerged a long-haired figure in a red dress, sort of like a night gown, embellished with flowery decorations that showed through to what appeared to be a bikini. Just as I imagined her. This was Florence.
Unlike Grimes this set was to be a master-class of vocal range and harmony. My show-going experiences would anticipate a band opening with a well-known energetic number. One that would, from the first note, be designed to grab attention and set the pace for the set. 98% of the time my anticipation would be correct but this was not one of those times. Not entirely anyway. F+M began the first notes of a song I knew well. It is a song that begins slowly but it builds, and it builds, and it builds. It begins as a sort of melancholic song and ends in a vocal playground. This song was What the Water Gave Me from my favorite F+M record Ceremonials. What followed was a truly professional display of talent. I did not catalog the songs but from memory, in addition to the opening track, the audience was treated to Dog Days are Over, Cosmic Love, Ship to Wreck, Shake it Out, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, an acoustic version of Sweet Nothing, and many more. If I wasn’t absolutely in awe of Florence and her talent I was awing at the magic of live performance such as watching the drummer, who has the, what I imagine is a nerve wrecking, job of leading the entire performance and ensures that each piece of the machine stays on beat; and the sound engineer who sat sideways stage left giving me full view as he every so often made a small adjustment to ensure that the talent on stage was amplified to the crowd in the best way possible. Everyone was playing their role perfectly and I had the biggest smile on my face.
At one point Florence, in her sweet British voice that I hadn’t expected to come from such a fierce and confident singer, asked the audience to not use their cell phone or recording equipment for just one song. To have a fully shared experience together. Afterwards she praised the crowd for fulfilling the request and jokingly stated, “Now I’m gonna get on my phone.” Another moment she requested that everyone remove an article of clothing and wave it in the air. With inhibitions lost I removed my shirt and spun it for the entirety of the song. And at the end, by no request but as an offer to try and return the favor of gifting me a ticket to this wonderful performance, I propped one of my friends on my shoulders. It was my first time doing so and I gotta say that I was surprised that of all the things that I thought would burn or hurt it was my shoulders themselves that burned most evidently.
The encore and show concluded shortly after letting my friend down off of my shoulders. The audience and I gave our thanks and praises via screams and whistles and then set for the parking lot. Passing the merch booth I was both sad and glad to see the Florence print had sold out. (Just know that a t-shirt was $50). I don’t hold those things against artists because I know it’s likely their agent or marketing team that makes those decisions. What I do hold the artist to is their performance and Florence + Machine was worth all the money I would have spent and more. She was kind, genuine, professional, and talented. I hope that anyone with the opportunity to see Florence + Machine has the same emphatic response that I did because if I could do it again I would have bought my tickets day one.
One more beer, one omelet with hash browns, three cups of coffee, an hour drive home, and a cup of water later I lay myself to bed. It’s 3:00AM and I have to be up at 7:00AM for work. Worth it.