One night after playing the biggest stage in town, the Austin360 Amphitheater, Florence Welch and her 10-piece backing band the Machine performed a much more intimate set for the band’s second “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live.
Her band entered first, clad in classy black and setting the tone for the evening with an eerie melodic drone that would break into the opening of “What the Water Gave Me.” Moments later, Welch rushed onto the stage barefoot, wearing a lightweight long white dress ornamented with subtle black designs that flowed with the motion of her body.
As a performer, Welch takes the ritual aspect of her artistry seriously. She entered with eyes downcast, but as she allowed the dark melody to take her body, her eyes opened, roving across the crowd. By the end of the song she was running the short span of open stage, hopping lightly and coaxing the crowd to their feet with graceful, imploring gestures.
Welch seemed both inspired and somewhat constrained by the small setting. Her music is built on grandiose themes, harnessing the power of mythology to express powerful emotion. She’s used to letting it move her freely, and at times she appeared on the verge of bursting with the desire to sprint the stage as she would in an arena.
She confessed as much, three songs in. “I know what I would do in a field,” she said, introducing the song “Rabbit Heart.” With a repeated refrain of “Raise it up,” she generally encourages her female fans to get on their boyfriends shoulders.
“We can do it in here,” she said, and a good 10 couples in the front section obliged. Delighted, Welch rushed into the crowd, high-fiving them. She paused at the very front where a few tween girls were dancing happily, then pulled them out, starstruck and amazed as she twirled them in circles.
If she was confined by the space, she also seemed inspired by the closeness of the crowd. For most of the show the audience was not in darkness, but softly lit, and Welch went out of her way to establish a real connection, emphasizing the minute details in each grand gesture, making eye contact and singing directly and pointedly to every section of the crowd in turn.
She enlisted the crowd as a “hungover choir of angels” on “Shake It Out,” swung her body brutally to the muted horn blasts on “Queen of Peace” and poured out so much furious heart it dropped her to her knees on “What Kind of Man.”
The large ensemble did a beautiful job filling the space with gorgeously textured baroque pop. When they took the main part of the set out with “Spectrum,” the crowd went wild cheering relentlessly till the band returned.
When she returned for an encore, Welch encouraged the audience to hug each other and build on their warmth for “You Got the Love.” Then she implored everyone to lose inhibitions and shed a garment to swing like a flag (but not fully disrobe as this was for television, she noted).
“You are free, you are free!” she shouted through the always climatic closer “Dog Days Are Over.” In the midst of an unstoppable onslaught of happiness hitting us like a train on a track, it did indeed feel like freedom reigned at ACL Live.