The first time Florence Welch jumped off the stage at the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night, she ran into the barrier on the general admission floor and sang “Dream Girl Evil” directly in front of cheering fans. And she wasn’t just singing, but passionately grabbing her hands and holding them with an almost religious fury.
Yes, the 36-year-old London native turned the hockey arena in downtown St. Paul into something of a neo-Gothic tent, for the night anyway, in front of a crowd of around 7 000 people. In the years since his band Florence + the Machine’s 2008 breakthrough hit, “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch has built an extremely loyal following around the world with a persona best described as a cross between Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush.
Like Bush – whose return to the charts this summer with his 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” was a real treat – Welch revels in a very British art rock mysticism that may seem inscrutable to the casual listener. And like Nicks, Welch loves frilly, diaphanous dresses that float and float as she crosses the stage and twirls in ecstasy.
Welch built the set list around his latest album “Dance Fever” and managed to work most of the tracks on almost two dozen songs. She opened the show on her own small stage decorated like a frozen forest of feathered trees, with her large band (which includes a harpist) performing in the shadows on either side.
Having a dedicated space gave Welch the ability to rock back and forth, jump up and down, and strike dramatic poses, earning cheers every time she did. After a pair of dark, dense numbers from the new record, she launched into “Ship to Wreck,” the first example of her ability to compel, whether through art or arena rock.
Welch said Iggy Pop was a key influence when she was doing “Dance Fever,” although I’m not sure that translated into the actual songs. I guess a track like “Free,” which she wrote with super producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, the Chicks), sounds like Pop’s “Lust for Life” in that I could hear it (inappropriately) used in an advertisement for a cruise line.
As it turned out, “Dream Girl Evil” was just the beginning of Welch’s mob adventures, during which time I should note she wasn’t wearing shoes. And it wasn’t just empty pointing and smiles or slaps. Welch seemed genuinely energized by physical contact and the ability to connect, if only for a moment. During “Choreomania” – a term for a social phenomenon in early modern Europe where groups of people began dancing together erratically – Welch sprinted to the back of the arena floor where she briefly sang from the top of an equipment crate.
If this all sounds like hippie nonsense, well, it kind of was. And yet, Welch clearly enjoys his position as an artist, however unconventional his presentation may be. She sings many of her songs in a smooth coo, but could also be heard with a steely contralto voice that hit every corner of the X. It was a real joy to see her embrace her inner rocker. during the raucous “Kiss with a Fist”. and rock Coldplay’s Chris Martin with the gothic anthem “Shake it Out,” which had the crowd singing along in pure bliss.