Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena is in the top 10 busiest venues in Australia and New Zealand. Tonight, it is home to opening act King Princess and headliner, Florence and The Machine
Queer icon, Michaela Straus, known by stage name King Princess, played a powerhouse set, all while dressed in a lace dress over baggy jeans – an obscure choice that felt so natural on the Brooklyn native. About halfway through their set, King Princess turns to one of her musicians and says, straight faced, “Uh-Oh Antwon, it’s pussy time” before launching into certified banger; Pussy is God. While the arena is only half full – people are filling the whole of the space, dancing at the back – spinning with each other and jumping. King Princess is entirely self-aware of the genre changes her set provides; ‘Now for juxtaposition, who wants to hear a sad lesbian song?” If I was picturing a ‘Sad lesbian song’, Change The Locks would be it. Heartbreaking and full of yearning, it is a beautiful ode to lost love and youthful melancholy. Coming out of the ballad, Straus has noticed a lull in the crowds’ energy. Grabbing the mic, they command our attention; “Guys you have to get more excited, I don’t care if you fucking like me or not. Get crazy! Get loose. Let’s get crazy.” And so, we do. The crowd starts jumping, hooting, and hollering. Straus goes from shredding guitar, to grinding and dancing on the ground – pulling out all the stops, without breaking a sweat. In the middle of major hit, 1950, they stop. Almost teary, they take a moment. “Australia’s always been a place that’s supported me. Shout out to the Queer community in Australia.” Looking through the crowd and seeing Queer couples of all ages kiss each other, hold hands, sway together – it is a beautiful moment of community, love, and connection. Finishing the set strong, King Princess is back with a smirk; “Let’s praise the rock lords!” Let Us Die is the perfect closer. Finishing the set by throwing a pick into the crowd – we are primed for the main event.
An installation, mimicking a pile of half-melted candles in some old European cathedral, is moved onstage. Microphones are scattered around the periphery. There is a buzz in the air.
My housemate turned to me; “Have you ever seen Florence live?”
I shook my head.
With a smirk, he turned back to the stage; “You’re in for a treat”.
And, my god, what a treat it was.
The lights go black, and underneath the candles, a strobe goes off. There is nothing for a moment, and then Florence comes onstage; draped in blue lace, shoe-less, red hair flowing over her lithe frame. There could not be a more perfect opening track; Heaven Is Here. She moves in a way somewhere between rhythmic and jagged. She is possessed by the sound. So are we.
She moves seamlessly into a haunting rendition of I Am King. She stands tall, arms spread out wide, lace sleeves filtering the purple light now filling the stage. This feels more like a Church sermon than a concert; this is The Gospel According To Florence Welch.
Suddenly, the energy shifts, and we are swept into Ship To Wreck. The crowd goes nuts - free from their trance. They are jumping and screaming and singing, and so is Florence. The next few songs, Welch dances around the stage, gliding from one end to another, motioning for her captive audience to sing even louder. In a moment between songs, she laughs a little into the microphone – “To those of you who know me, and those of you who’ve been dragged along tonight and are wondering, ‘What the fuck is this?’ – welcome to the show. It is so much better if you just give into it. I promise. If you do everything I say, you’ll be fine.” Who are we to disobey? While performing Free, she simply raises her hand on the lyric ‘as it picks me up’ and lowers it ‘puts me down’, and the whole crowd follows her, as if under a spell.
When it is time for one of Florence and The Machine’s biggest hits – The Dog Days Are Over, she tells all of us to put our phones away, to “Be here, connect with each other.” There is not a phone in sight and everyone, even those of us in the seated area of the arena, jump together and sing together in beautiful, free catharsis. Her voice is unbelievable; she is a Kate Bush, a Stevie Nicks, and yet, something else entirely. It rings smooth and clear and fills up the entire stadium with ease.
Welch then makes her way offstage and into the crowd for Big God. She approaches the crowd and holds a fan’s face with gentle hand. As she sings to them, she wipes away their tears, and then pulls away to stand above the barrier which holds back the crowd. The lights onstage stop their changing from red to purple and go black once again. She is lit by a single spotlight, and as she sings, fans clamour to touch her. Reaching up to hold her hands, her arms, anything. In the darkness, all you can see is hands reaching up through the spotlight. They are desperate to be bestowed with some of their Messiah’s goodness, to be washed clean of their ills by this religious figure which stands above them.
Florence Welch is a master of tone-shifting without breaking focus. Jumping immediately into What Kind of Man, the stage pulsing with red light that bathes all 14,000 of us. Her body moving with every flash. The stage and her are one being. And then, suddenly, she is speaking again, the stage lights a gentle violet. Her voice is cracking, as if she is about to cry. “I invite you all now to hold onto each other”, and so we embrace or hold hands or press our feet together. The father and daughter in front of me, the older lesbian couple, the high school best friends – all wrapped up with each other. We are treated to a song that was not played at all on the tour before her closing Australia and New Zealand leg, The Bomb. She dedicates this one to her support act; King Princess, because it’s her favourite song.
Choreomania brings another run into the crowd. This time she sprints to the back, the crowd parting for her like the Red Sea. She stands above them, and once again they desperately reach for her.
You said that rock and roll is dead/
But is that just because it has not been resurrected in your image.
The crowd is screaming these lyrics back to her, people coming out of nowhere to gather around her.
Like if Jesus came back, but in a beautiful dress.
The arena lights up as Florence raises her arms to the sky, and the crowd follows in perfect, mirrored synchronicity. I’m not a religious person, but I was covered in goosebumps. She was delivering a sermon. Her crowd her devoted followers (one man had been to 42 shows). It was like the most beautiful, loving, joyous cult you could imagine.
Finishing with a mix of My Love and Restraint, she begins pulsing, raising her arms, moving her body in almost inhuman ways. Then, pushed out of her trance she begs – “This is the Dance Fever tour! For years we couldn’t gather like this. This is the resurrection of dance. I want you to leave everything you have here, in this room”. And the crowd goes ballistic. After 2 hours of songs, they are still going with as much vigour as they did for the first track. She is infectious.
Previously, Florence hasn’t played Never Let Me Go, at her live shows. “It was written at a time where I was very sad, and very drunk. And if you could imagine in terms of Florence and the Machine songs, what has to be the Saddest and Drunkest? That is very sad and very drunk. So, it sort of hurt too much to sing it. But I’ve had a lot of time to think about what performance means to me, and connection with you means to me.” And as things go quiet before she sings, voices scream at her “I love you!” and we all cheer. Voices sing alongside her, tears well up in all of us. It’s heartbreaking. It is a reclamation.
Finishing with Shake It Out and Rabbit Heart, I left feeling very much lost for words. It was more than just a show. How could I possibly capture the energy left in that room?
Welch has been very open about her history of anxiety and depression, as well as alcoholism. Clean and sober for several years, you can feel a weight is lifted from her. As she dances around stage - effervescent, ethereal, divine, she reminds us that there is a simple divinity in being alive. There is so much joy, along with the pain. That no pain is too great to overcome. “I gave my hard emotions to you, to protect. Thank you.” Just as we keep her pain safe, we keep each others pain safe. This was a show about connection, to ourselves, to loved ones, to strangers. It was a beautiful reclamation of femininity, queerness, truth, and selfhood. That despite all the hurt, all the heartache, all the grief – we can still dance, barefoot, sharing our fear, our hopes, our doubts, and people will be there to scream and sing along with us. Florence holds us with her music. It was as cathartic for us as it was for Welch, who seemed so happy, lost in the moment, fully present and alive. She is a symbol of overcoming, of community and of love. I left, teary-eyed, feeling closer to myself, excited to face a new day and rejoice in being alive.
I have seen God. She is a woman. And her name, is Florence Welch.
You can still catch Florence & The Machine's Dance Fever Tour
Tickets available here