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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Review: Florence and the Machine give brazen, upbeat performance for Abu Dhabi fans

How much one enjoys Florence and the Machine is intrinsically tied to how much one buys into the act's idiosyncratic leader. When you strip away all the theatre, bombast, harps and quirks, is Welch for real?
Florence and the Machine perform on the third night of the Yas F1 after-race concerts at the Du Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National
Florence and the Machine perform on the third night of the Yas F1 after-race concerts at the Du Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National

Florence Welch well knows the value of theatre in music. Arriving artfully amid a jarring soundscape, the ethereal Florence and the Machine frontwoman appeared to float onto the Du Arena stage, her long flared trousers and puffy blue blouse trailing behind her.

Within moments of touching a mic, Welch is twirling like a ballerina, her bushy red mane slashing dramatic arcs through the air.

Behind her stands “the Machine”, a perfectly fitting name for the 11-piece engine room that drives her music. A nameless, faceless line-up of singers, guitarists, harpists and drummers – there are lots of drums – they summon that almighty baroque-pop/rock sound, as knowingly histrionic as Welch’s soaring vocal exorcisms.

The fact that the opening song, slow-burning promo single What the Water Gave Me, is named after a 1938 Frida Kahlo oil painting says much about Florence’s mix of the highbrow and pop, of momentous intent merged with timely chorus.

Brazen, upbeat new confessional Ship to Wreck proved timelier, and by vintage 2009 anthem Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up), even most of the more casual audience members were won over by that funky girl with the flowing red locks.

There’s an air of hippiness to Welch’s stage shtick, as she demands that the audience – “for just one song” – put their phones away and appreciate music the old-fashioned way, with their ears and eyes.

In her cartoony English aristocratic accent, she introduces the title track to this year’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, as “a gift” to us and to her alike, a moment of inspiration that came in a place “with skies nearly as blue as here” (Los Angeles).

Breaking a four-year hiatus, the critically lauded release marked the close of a very public period of personal darkness.

It is this eccentric individualism, this sense of grave artistry, that has captivated open hearts and curious ears around the globe.

But, tellingly, the evening’s most universal moments came when Welch is at her least Florence-like – a cover of 1980s dance staple You’ve Got the Love, and Calvin Harris collaborations Sweet Nothing and Spectrum (Say My Name). Indeed, it is hard to buy all the tortured artist/singular vision positioning from anyone who turned to Scotland’s dark master of EDM airplay.

How much one enjoys Florence and the Machine is intrinsically tied to how much one buys into the act’s idiosyncratic leader. When you strip away all the theatre, bombast, harps and quirks, is Welch for real?

rgarratt@thenational.ae