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9th February 2023

Live review: Florence + The Machine at AO Arena

Florence + The Machine brought their Dance Fever Tour to AO Arena for a rescheduled date – and it sure was worth the wait
Live review: Florence + The Machine at AO Arena
Photo: Jay Darcy @ The Mancunion

Florence + The Machine are currently embarking on their Dance Fever Tour, in support of their album of the same name. So intense is Florence Welch’s dance fever that, whilst dancing onstage during the first London gig, she broke her foot and had to postpone the rest of the tour! But Florence vowed to dance again, and three months later, she’s back, just as energetic but with the addition of shoes (doctor’s orders).

Florence + The Machine’s opening act was rock singer Willie J Healey whose undeniable artistry and talent shone through. His final song was particularly groovy, and he succeeded in warming up the audience.

Florence + The Machine’s presence was felt before they even arrived onstage – thanks to the striking staging. At the back of the stage was a collection of white chandeliers, all covered in shredded white cloth. More chandeliers were hanging from above, also covered in draping but enclosed in a white, rectangle-shaped frame, a fusion of old and new, a physical representation of the creative liminality of Florence + The Machine.

As the lights went down, the frame was lowered to the floor, and the chandeliers followed suit. It was magical. I felt like I was being transported to a different dimension, one of darkness, drama, debauchery, and, of course, dance. The chandeliers were then raised to different levels, with Florence suddenly appearing behind them, a grand entrance for an ethereal enchantress. She was cloaked in a loose-fitting, pale yellow gown which flowed from her body with delicate strength. Her signature red locks moved in tandem with the material she cloaked herself in. It was bewitching.

The band opened their set with ‘Heaven is Here’, an album track from Dance Fever; it was a mesmerising opening number. It was followed by the album’s lead single, ‘King’, with the chandeliers rising higher at the end of the song. It was clear that the set was not going to remain static; it would move around throughout, sometimes orderly, sometimes out of sync, but always charmingly. At some points, the frame and chandeliers would be in their original position, parallel to the stage, but during most of the show, they were positioned on a slant.

During two songs, black screens covered the stage front, left and right, with lights making the enclosed Florence visible. During the first song, the lights and and frame were parallel with the stage; during the second, they were sloped. The designers clearly did not want too much repetition; they wanted every number to have a unique feel to it, even if only achieved through small details.

Photo: Jay Darcy @ The Mancunion

‘Ship to Wreck’ was the set’s third song. Singing a hit early on is a great way to exhilarate the audience. The band then went back to Dance Fever, with third single ‘Free’ and album track ‘Daffodil’, before repeating the rule of three and performing ‘Dog Days Are Over’, their second single and first hit. Whilst it did not chart as high as some of their other singles, it is their most-streamed song and has remained popular in the years since it was released. It’s also their only US hit.

With the entire audience now at her mercy, Florence thanked first-time audience members, returners, and people who were brought along or were just curious. She acknowledged that the latter two were probably wondering: “What the fuck is this? Is it a cult? Am I safe?”

But even the newbies were willing participants in Florence’s cult of freedom; everybody danced the night away.

Florence encouraged us to put our phones away and to politely ask anyone with their phone out to put it away, or to just tell them, “Put your fucking phone away!” Whilst the audience was ready to worship her, not even a cult leader could get millennials to get off their phones!

During ‘What Kind of Man’, Florence went down into the pit and embraced the audience. Adoring fans reached for her, craving even the smallest embrace. During ‘Choreomania’, she walked down the side of the audience before actually walking through it, with a score of concerned security guards keeping her safe. She made it back to the stage just in time for the final chorus; it was a riot.

At the first London gig, where Florence injured herself, she finally introduced ‘You’ve Got the Love’ to the setlist (the band’s hit cover of The Source’s ‘You Got the Love’ featuring Candi Staton). I could not believe that they had not sung it previously.

Sadly, they did not perform ‘Spectrum (Say My Name)’, their only UK no. 1 and my favourite Florence + The Machine song. They had sung it at their festival appearances, and in its original version (a downtempo album track called ‘Spectrum’, which was later remixed by Calvin Harris) at the intimate gigs, but arena audiences were denied that privilege.

Thankfully, they performed my favourite song from Dance Fever, ‘My Love’ (the album’s second single). The album’s most dance-feverish song, Florence was in her element, and the audience grooved along with her. ‘My Love’ was followed by ‘Restraint’, a super short album track, and that was the end of the main set.

Photo: Jay Darcy @ The Mancunion

Before the encore, the screens lit up. We were told that Florence + The Machine had partnered with Choose Love, a UK-based non-governmental organisation which provides humanitarian aid to, and advocacy for, refugees around the world. In 2016, it became the largest grassroots distributor of aid in Europe. The audience, which was as liberal as you’d imagine, were thrilled to see this.

Upon their return to the stage, Florence told us that she and Rob (bandmate Robert Ackroyd) think that their first Manchester gig was at Deaf Institute (one of their first ever gigs), followed by some student balls. They went from playing tiny venues to headlining arenas all around the country!

The first song of the encore was ‘Never Let Me Go’, a song they have not sang on tour for a decade. Florence had decided she was never going to sing it again because it was one of many songs that was written when she was not sober. She admitted that it hurt too much to sing it but the pandemic gave her a lot of time to think about what songs mean to her. Whilst the band stopped performing it, fans kept listening to it, so they were going to perform it to thank fans for being with them for 15 years.

“Even if you can’t love a song, people will love it for you so that you can hold it again”, she said poetically and emotionally.

She also admitted that she stopped singing the song because it is hard to sing! Her honesty was refreshing.

The penultimate song was fan favourite ‘Shake It Out’. The opening line of the second verse – “And I am done with my graceless heart so tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart” – pulled at my heartstrings. I really relate to that lyric for some reason so seeing it sang live was cathartic.

‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ brought the concert to a sweet, powerful end. I had to leave the concert during the song so I’d make the 11pm bus back to Burnley but Florence’s enchanting vocals echoed throughout the entire building… Now that’s magic.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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