If Florence Welch, she of the kimono sleeves and the stratospheric voice, had begun to levitate Sunday at the sold-out Chicago Theatre, her fans probably wouldn’t have been all that astonished.
Welch, who has released two best-selling albums under the name Florence and the Machine, has that kind of otherworldly quality associated with Victorian heroines and witchy seductresses. Hey, maybe she can fly too?
“It talks in tongues and quiet sighs and prayers and proclamations,” she trilled on “All This Heaven and Too” – as good a way as any of describing her peculiar language, her attempts to float beyond the everyday. Twirling onto the stage and discarding her black high heels after a few songs, she was light on her feet and flexible of voice as she danced atop the notes.
But as this performance affirmed, there’s more to Welch than wispiness and eccentricity.
A six-piece band put piano and harp – yes, harp – out front, bringing an Elizabethan or Celtic flair to several songs. Two drummers emphasized tribal thump and rolling rhythms, giving Welch’s music some earthiness and drive. Her subjects inevitably involve rapture, transcendence, breaking on through to a different understanding of the world. There was the Gothic drama of “Seven Devils” (a “True Blood” song in waiting if there ever was one), the Alice in Wonderland fantasy of “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up),” the fervent wish to “Leave My Body.”
“I’m not 7 foot tall … I’m not riding a chariot,” Welch said, acknowledging that sometimes the personality she projects on her recordings isn’t matched by her actual physical stature. But Florence brought her Giant Reverb Machine, and with two backing vocalists, she at times sounded like a choir at an Italian opera.
At 25, the U.K. singer has some clear precedents as an artist storming the charts from Planet Flo: the seductive weirdness of Kate Bush, the feminist fire of Tori Amos, the slow-burn swirl of Sarah McLachlan. But she adds a few distinctive touches all her own, most notably a powerhouse voice that for all its upper-register airiness can also get down and growl.
Tambourines rattled and she pogo-hopped to the beat, clapping hands until the venerable theater started to morph into a Baptist church. She dropped an unaccompanied vocal passage into “Lover to Lover” with the fervor of a gospel soloist, played give and take with her backing vocalists on “Leave My Body” and turned “Dog Days are Over” into a holy-roller rollercoaster ride, punctuated by a leap from the drum riser.
For all her playful kookiness, Welch is a soul singer at heart. She’s got an untamed yowl that demands more of the world than it can sometimes possibly give. She can’t fly. But her voice can.
Florence and the Machine set list Sunday at the Chicago Theatre:
1. Only If For a Night
2. What the Water Gave Me
3. Seven Devils
4. Cosmic Love
5. Lover to Lover
6. Leave My Body
7. All This and Heaven Too
8. Between Two Lungs
9. Dog Days are Over
10. Shake It Out
11. Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)
13. Never Let Me Go
14. No Light No Light