The headlining set at American Airlines Center on Wednesday night began as many do there, with dramatic introductory music, lights and smoke effects ramping up, and a large band waiting on stage for its lead singer’s grand entrance.
Everything became refreshingly unfamiliar, though, when the otherworldly 29-year-old singer Florence Welch climbed the stage’s front stairs. Barefoot in a flowing dress maximized for whimsical, Stevie-style twirls, the lead singer of the popular English group Florence and the Machine presided over her own kind of modern rock ’n’ soul fantasy factory.
The crowd at AAC, while nowhere near capacity, was healthy enough to keep Welch herself in awe throughout the performance. To be accompanied on choruses by thousands of diehards thrilled Welch, who got her start writing songs at home and performing in small clubs with now band member Isabella Summers.
“It’s always weird to play these big places,” she said while introducing one of her earliest tracks, “Cosmic Love.” “Because the day I wrote this, I wasn’t sure I would make it out of the room.”
Yet the vocal that followed her confession — a robust but somehow vulnerable soul belt performed partly a cappella — reminded everyone why she’s twirling on huge stages now. Welch’s command of a crowd and overall live presence are something special.
The band’s no slouch, either, including backup singers who can handle both soul cries and operatic flourishes with ease. A couple of them even played horns for the brassier tunes in the set. “Mother” was one of them, and every time the horns would swell, Welch would throw her hands into the air as though she were commanding the heavens to recognize the earth (or the other way around?).
Mother nature had already been referenced during the title song of the latest FATM album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” when Welch said she wanted the song to be like a “big blue sky all over all of you.” She certainly has an up-with-people approach to her stage banter, not hesitating to urge fans out of their comfort zones by asking them to embrace strangers around them. “Kiss each other’s faces!” she commanded at one point. And lots of folks obeyed.
The need to reciprocate was real, considering how much Welch’s own energy boosted the overall experience. She never stopped moving; I can still picture her running around the perimeter of the arena’s standing-room-only floor during “Rabbit Heart.”
Her dancing and posturing didn’t seem to affect the vocals’ precision, either — they were powerful and studio-perfect on the crowd favorites “Shake it Out,” “Ship to Wreck,” and “Delilah.”
Florence’s handpicked opening act had already set a wonderfully weird tone for the evening. Canadian dance-pop provocateur Grimes has risen to music-nerd prominence with some help from Dallas’ influential Gorilla vs. Bear blog, so the floor was already bustling when she took the stage early Wednesday evening.
Grimes' mix of bubblegum pop vocals, odd primal screams and icy electronic beats was mesmerizing.
She didn’t necessarily need the two dancers who made awkward, overly stylized entrances at the beginning of every song. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained by their presence.
If Grimes was the conversation-piece appetizer on Wednesday, Florence and the Machine amounted to a hearty, multi-course meal. I hope to see more shows like it at AAC. Shallow pop and classic rock can’t be the only things worthy of an arena space.