Florence and the Machine, The XX

Tim Miller 30/09/2009

18th September 2009

I'm mingling in the decidedly young crowd at Bournemouth's newest - and also oldest - gig venue awaiting Florence and the Machine when I realise Florence Welch is right in front of me. With wild, bushy hair tamed by a glinting hair band, a floaty tunic and rather garish heels, her fast-becoming-iconic look is perhaps a yard from my face. To my right, two more Florence Welches are stood drinking Reefs, while there's a whole gaggle of Florences by one of the venue's pillars. Yes, she may only have a four-month old debut album under her skirt but such is the ubiquity of her music and her fashion iconoclasm, 22-year old Florence Welch is more vogue right now than Madonna's ever been.

She's the first major name at the town's new AMG-owned 02 Academy, a landmark acquisition for the group: the esteemed venue formerly known as the Opera House has over 100 years' history behind it and legendary artists such as Pink Floyd have graced its grade II listed stage. While the new branding may add a corporate touch to the resplendent interior, it also drags the former theatre into the 21st century, and finally gives the seaside resort a respectable, mid-sized venue that will put an end to star names bypassing Bournemouth in favour of Exeter, Southampton and Bristol on their South West journeys.

Before the throngs of teenage girls (and slightly older but equally enthralled males) can get an eyeful of Miss Welch, however, there's a surprise in store. The support listed as 'Frankie and the Heartstrings' is a red herring: taking to the stage first are none other than The XX, striking me as an incredible slice of fortune for the audience, getting two of 2009's defining artists for the price of one. And even though everyone is here for one lady, The XX's subtle, dreamy dub-indie suspends the audience, the oh-so-quiet duet vocals given absolute silence to drift across the space, each song closing to an appreciative round of applause. For my money, The XX's haunting quality doesn't quite translate as arrestingly from record to live, but their self-titled debut remains one of the gems of this year.

So unassuming are The XX that - bless their hearts - they still come back on stage to sort out their own gear. They need to make a sharp exit too, as all manner of paraphernalia is coming out for Florence and her machine: bouquets of flowers get attached to pretty much anything around the stage, birdcages with lights inside are rolled on and the magnificent harp is revealed on the left of the stage. We're not kept waiting long, and when the lights dim the excitement hikes up to the rafters. The 'Machine' is a five-member backing, including harpist and keyboard player, and they set about stoking the flames before Florence Welch finally saunters on stage and leads her troupe into a savage 'Kiss With A Fist'.

It isn't quite the explosive opening it should have been however, with the levels not quite right and Florence herself seeming too eager to belt out the song's domestic violence tale with vitriol rather than panache. She settles instead into B-side 'Bird Song', stomping around the stage to its clattering rhythm, her long bare legs veiled beneath an airy, regal black and gold gown. It is third song 'My Boy Builds Coffins', however, that kick-starts the evening properly, the song's brilliantly bleak lyrics and grand defeatism uniting the crowd behind Florence's rich voice.

It is a voice that stands above all others, despite the numerous debutants that have shouldered their way into 2009's wide-ranging limelight, and live it is just as bold, soaring and magnificent as on record. In fact, where Lungs plastered her voice in myriad layers for syrupy-thick, heartfelt harmonies, on stage she is on her own with just the one microphone, but if anything her laid bare solo voice is even more impressive. Swelling from her soul and absolutely pitch-perfect, Florence singing live is an emphatic confirmation of her very real talent.

She's not shy either, and after pausing for breath, opens up to the audience in an excited chatter, introducing the crowd to an antique-looking goblet that she purchased while wandering around Southbourne, an object she seems to be rather taken with, drinking often from it during the set. It's anyone's guess as to the contents: rabbit blood, perhaps. Florence also explains that she's spent all her 'tour money' on two Victorian pictures that she spotted, though I'd be concerned for their validity if she picked them up from anywhere within two miles of this venue.

Back into the songs, Florence seduces the audience with what she calls an acoustic section - namely 'I'm Not Calling You a Liar', 'Hurricane Drunk' and 'Between Two Lungs', Florence gliding through the love-themed tunes backed by just harp and guitar. But despite lacking the musical intensity of their album counterparts, these more intimate versions are just as affecting, the solo vocal again majestic and the harp melodies simply beautiful. In fact, on her harpist Tom, Florence muses, “I might just pay him to play for me”, like an idle queen about to lounge onto a velvet couch.

But soon, lounging is the last thing on anyone's mind. Florence welcomes the rest of her band back onto stage and they launch into a storming quartet of songs: the more urgent harp strings of 'Dog Days are Over', the burning, onomatopoeic 'Howl', current pounding single 'Drumming Song' and then Florence's self-proclaimed favourite song from Lungs (and incidentally, mine too), the heart-tugging, lingering 'Cosmic Love'. It's a stunning run of songs, dazzling, delivered with an impeccable mix of grace, power and passion.

She's nowhere near done, however, and after a resounding cover of Fever Ray's 'If I Had a Heart', it's album closer 'Blinding', sweeping from its delicate beginning into a huge, full band outro, that finishes the main set, Florence leaving behind her microphone to writhe against the walls, screaming inaudibly as her band storm through the crashing final notes. Anyone keeping some sort of track will have noticed two telling absentees from the set as the band say their goodbyes, and naturally minutes later a visibly humbled Ms Welch returns to the stage to thank what's been a superb audience for their adulation. We're rewarded with the obligatory 'You've Got the Love', but even live it lacks something in comparison to Florence's own tunes, despite the flamboyant rendition it remains. Finally, out comes 'Rabbit Heart', the crowd filling in the gaps and all hell breaking loose as the cult of Florence and the Machine consumes every single heart and soul in the building.

Elation thrills through the crowd as the lights come up again, a dazed smile across everyone's lips. It's been the sort of gig you long for but rarely experience; no disappointments, absolute entertainment and enjoyment. As a live prospect Florence and the Machine are truly awe-inspiring, and regardless of her meteoric rise to mainstream darling, the leading lady remains with her feet on the ground, her head in the clouds, her heart on her sleeve. It's a disposition that makes for a unique, exhilarating live experience, and her performance merits her accidental idol status. Fundamentally though, it's been one of the best gigs I've been to in a long, long time, and confirms Florence Welch as one of the brightest stars to have fallen to earth in 2009.

Photos by Adam Prosser