Review: Florence and the Machine at Botanic Park

Adelaide’s dog days were briefly over at Botanic Park as Florence and the Machine soundtracked an all-too-fleeting heatwave reprieve.

“When I’m not on stage I like to talk to one or two people per day,” Florence Welch says early in her set, the English singer insisting she is actually quite shy. She admits it’s a strange claim given her current position on a stage in front of thousands, but it also sits oddly with her main message of the show: the world-changing power of connecting with your fellow humans.

This show could, of course, been a disaster, a harp vs. nature spectacle the likes of which Botanic Park has not seen since Joanna Newsom battled the great 2011 cricket plague at WOMADelaide. In a week of stifling summer heat that still hangs thick in the parkland air, organisers and wildlife groups spread ominous warnings for concert goers to avoid contact with heat-afflicted, and possibly diseased, fruit bats that have been falling from the trees. Not ideal conditions for a night of stirring British chamber pop.

June, the opening track track of last year’s High As Hope is a subdued and bat-free start to the set, but the calm soon gives way to Welch careening across the stage, her signature pirouettes and whipping hair make her a twirling blur of white and ginger. Between the moves and the vocal runs, Welch strongly asserts her claim to Kate Bush’s throne as queen of I’m-haunting-your-rural-English-manor-but-please-don’t-go-to-any-trouble pop.

“Would you like to dance with us?” she asks wistfully as a harp is gently plucked in the background. Cathartic single Hunger is soon joined by her 2009 breakthrough hit Dog Days Are Over and 2015’s Ship To Wreck. Such barreling, stadium baroque anthems have justifiably carved Welch a firm place in modern pop, and a reliable dominance of Australian airwaves every one to two years that makes this, her largest Australian tour to date, possible.

But placed side by side there is a point, and it doesn’t take long to arrive, where the finely tuned gear changes and well-placed heartstring tugs of Welch’s best songs are laid bare. For all the chiffon and whimsy, Welch is a methodical songwriter who knows all too well that a chorus is twice as powerful the second time around when it’s preceded by a hushed silence. Much like a machine, her band are well-oiled but a little lifeless, leaving it to Welch to work the stage and crowd for 90 odd minutes.

It’s before Dog Days that Welch makes a plea for, if not world peace, a bit more love in the park. “The revolution in consciousness starts with individuals and that means you,” she implores, speaking in disappointed tones at the state of politics back home. “Hope is an action and I believe in you,” she says, before letting a moment of wry self-awareness slip in: “And just to make it as hippy as possible I’d like everyone here to hold hands”.

Botanic Park is an odd venue for such concerts, with many trappings of an outdoor festival but only one stage. The trees peppering the area’s vast foot print makes camping out in front of giant screens a necessity for many attendees. Such screens are a staple of big ticket concerts, but it still looks weird to see people staking out a good spot in front of a giant screen without hope of a decent sight line to the stage. It jars with Welch’s pleas for the crowd to put away their phones to create a genuine moment, that won’t be recorded by anyone (except of course the team of camera operators beaming it around the park).

A quiet turn in comes late in the set with the deeply personal End Of Love, before Welch reflects on her newfound sobriety. “Sometimes I can’t believe that this happened,” she says of her career, before revisiting 2009’s Cosmic Love. “When we wrote this we were so hungover we didn’t think it would make it out of the room.”

It’s easy to talk about the power of people from the stage, but Welch demonstrates her faith in personal connection by descending into the crowd during set closer Delilah, graciously clasping the hands of fans who eagerly paw at her. Which, tonight, is a perhaps a more powerful gesture than any new age, post-Occupy rhetoric – after all who knows whether any of them made contact with a diseased bat on the way in?

Florence and the Machine performed at Botanic Park on Wednesday, January 16 2019

Photography:
Sia Duff

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