Concert Review: Florence & the Machine at Jones Beach Theater – Sept. 15, 2012

Photo: Bloomberg

Magic was in the air the night Florence and the Machine enchanted her fans at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre. Dressed in a gossamer Gucci gown, Florence cast a spell that resonated under an ultraviolet sky. Her voice soared between this world and the next, as her band’s dark, romantic music rose to a crescendo, and the waves of sound washed over us row by row. It was heady, powerful stuff.

But when she made small talk, she sounded almost waiflike, joking that she thought the venue was really named the Jonas Brothers Beach House but admitted that “this is much better, thank you!”

She praised New York for its vitality and the audience cheered. She had energy to spare, skipping across the stage, twirling on one foot, dashing through the crowd with a bodyguard twice her girth following in her heels.

But Florence presents a paradox.

Anyone who’s seen her perform on Saturday Night Live, for example, knows that she embodies a curious phenomenon: she’s mesmerizing to listen to and fascinating to watch. She produces hymn-like requiems, with her three backup singers like a Baptist choir, plus Tom Monger on harp , her seminal collaborator Isabella Summers on keyboards, and sometimes even two percussionists, all providing a solid sonic strata for her songs. Her contradiction is that her music makes you want to absorb it, contemplate it, languish in its languor. In other words sit, or better yet, lie down on a divan with a hookah by your side. But she demands you rise up, stand up, and shake it out. At times Florence came on like a beguiling aerobics instructor, trying to get the audience on its feet, to shoulder their seatmates, and levitate. But that kind of response wouldn’t come naturally, she had to conjure it, uncurling her long fingers like a spell-caster. Her voice is physical, but her music is cerebral.

And she strives for the visual. Florence strikes poses as if she’s stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, one of those Romantic red-heads lost in their own thoughts of beauty and impermanence, staring off into space beyond the moors where twilight conjures ancient connections to higher beings and lost arts. It’s no wonder her music has become soundtracks for TV shows and movies like “Saving Grace” and “The Twilight Saga.” Her own film would more likely be Victorian Gothic and she’d be the ethereal mystery woman found floating through a haunted mansion at midnight with the key to unlock some ancient secret, the elixir dangling in an amulet around her neck.

It’s telling that she’s worked with the Scottish DJ, Calvin Harris, an electronic dance music artist, to remix her songs “Spectrum” (with its encouraging lyrics “we’ll never be afraid again”) and “Sweet Nothing,” and recently told the Wall Street Journal that she’s obsessed with “dance music and house beats and electronic sounds…and that fall-to-the-floor thing” that she’s “always looking for” in her music. Among her many influences, she credits Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick as a “hero,” but unlike Slick, she’s no rocker, and definitely no blues singer. It’s hard to imagine Florence ever singing the line “up against the wall, motherfucker” and making it stick as Slick once did. Florence is more like a New Age diva dressed like a slinky chanteuse from the Twenties, as best shown when she made her dramatic appearance in silhouette to begin her Nikon show.

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Photo: Long Island Press

The backdrop behind her resembled an art deco temple atop the Chrysler Building, and she’s the Celtic priestess of the penthouse conjuring up supernatural forces from earth and sky to beckon a new day. At one point in the concert, referring to her album Ceremonials, which came out almost a year ago, she said with a smile that “this part of the ceremony usually requires a human sacrifice.”  Fortunately for those assembled, she cut the audience some slack.

It’s fitting that her 2009 debut album was dubbed “Lungs,” because she’s got the chops to blow the lid off—and if there’d been a roof at Jones Beach, the huge sound from her lips would have kissed it goodbye. Surprisingly, the concert itself was barely an hour and 10 minutes long, and there was the sense that she’d sung enough for one night. In July, she had to cancel a few shows in Europe after suffering a vocal-cord injury, but she showed no hesitancy at Jones Beach to let it all out. (Indeed, our ears were ringing after she’d gone.)

Opening for her were The Maccabees, a feisty group of Brits, who treated those who deigned to leave their parking lot tailgate party to a great performance, too.  But it’s understandable some people would prefer to enjoy a beautiful September evening in New York while a crimson sunset still flickered like flames above Manhattan in the distance. But they missed something exceptional. The Macs have got three albums out now to Florence’s two, and their music is definitely louder, looser and earthier, less suitable for a soundtrack than Florence’s elegiac ballads but the billing made for a spirited combination nonetheless. Saturday’s show marked the second official night of their American tour together, and as Orlando Weeks, their lead singer, told the gathering crowd, “If it goes anything like last night, it’ll be okay!”

Weeks was right. They appreciated the chance to be on tour with Florence and she appreciated their appreciation, gushing over them later in the show. It would be interesting to catch up with them months from now before they return home. You wonder what kind of musical magic they might make together.

When her finale ended, the spell was broken, but the memory of her unique charms lingered on.