It’s an irksome fact of life that, upon reaching a certain level of success, our favourite artists end up playing behemoths like the O2 Arena, a more soulless, cynical venue it would be hard to find. Die-hard fans of Florence & the Machine probably long for the days of pub gigs and intimate venues when their heroine on the stage looked bigger than an ant. Sadly, those dog days are truly over and this sold-out show cements Welch’s journey to mainstream superstardom.
As the cavernous space slowly fills up, Haim, must be thanking the gods of stadium arenas and watered-down beer for such a golden ticket. With just one, solid EP to their name (and a list of enviable support slots), they’re clearly making the most of the moment, rocking out in true, teenage-bedroom style. The sisters from California have already been cast as a baby Fleetwood Mac, but this is certainly not where their influences begin or end. Sure, on ‘Better Off’ there’s a familiar 4/4 beat driving some Mac-esque chord progressions, but elsewhere there’s a smattering of grunge, some Led Zeppelin-style riffs and even a couple of cock-rock guitar solos. In ‘Forever’, the girls sound like no-one so much as Cyndi Lauper of the ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ era – which pretty much sums up Haim’s approach to the show. They conclude with a wonderfully bratty drum finale - a precocious, brazen herald of great things to come.
Exactly twenty minutes later, the rest of the stage is unveiled to reveal a striking, art deco back-drop through which Florence emerges to a rapturous audience. Dressed in a diaphanous, black number slashed to the waist, she’s a cross between something from an '80s fantasy film and a sexy raven. Billowing dramatically, she proceeds to sprint around the stage with impressive energy, pausing every so often to throw some picturesque shapes with her arms. Despite the portrayal of wilful abandonment, it’s hard to shake the impression that this is a perfectly executed, precision-planned performance given by a highly professional artist. It’s visually striking, beautiful and even awesome – but a marked contrast to the evening’s earlier, youthful exuberance.
For an album characterised by its expansiveness and theatricality, 'Ceremonials' was always going to stand up well to the space, coming alive in ways that are not always so obvious on the record. The highly orchestrated ‘Only If For A Night’ rolls out over the crowd with a gothic inevitability, Welch’s inimitable vocal easily surging over the top, while ‘What The Water Gave Me’ strikes a chilly, ethereal tone as Florence throws herself into ever more convoluted shapes. She’s in fine voice, rarely missing a note even when haring the width of the stage at 100 mph. In moments of relative stillness, her vocal is quite remarkable and utterly distinct.
It has to be said (begrudgingly) that F&TM do some pretty impressive things with the gargantuan space. For ‘Shake it out’, a red wash descends over a stage now hung with parlour curtains, turning it into the largest harlot’s boudoir in the world. More surprisingly is how earlier, more intimate work also stands up well. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ is a fitting finale and brings the most joyful, natural part of the set. A glance at the audience, bouncing in unison, shows a total absorption in the moment. Arenas are a tough gig, but the woman with the flame-red hair has well and truly pulled it off.
Words by Theresa Heath
Photos by Natalie Seery