The Pepsi Center is a cavernous place to watch a concert. There are arenas like it all around the world. Basketball jerseys hang from the incredibly high ceiling, concrete stairs run top to bottom, and the sound can echo all around the joint. On Thursday evening at Florence + the Machine's show, however, Florence Welch’s voice filled every inch of the enormous room.
And what a voice. Welch is a singer, a real singer, in a pop and rock world filled with vocalists, frontmen/women and divas. With Welch, the vocal exertion is effortless. We’re so used to seeing a look of angst and pain from our singing stars, neck tendons fully flexed and eyes bulging, that we’ve allowed ourselves to associate it with vocal power. Welch opens her mouth a crack as if to bleat and murmur, but the most incredible, gorgeous noise bursts forth.
Not a single note, not even a millisecond of noise that she emits, is wasted. Her soul is pouring out of her mouth like water from a busted dam every time she opens it. The result is a crowd that's hanging on her every word, every note, every sound, not to mention every beautifully awkward ballerina spin and leap. Welch has them screaming like five-year-olds at Disneyland, and then, with one simple finger to the mouth, renders them silent in an instant. “Worship” is a strong word, but it fits here.
Thankfully, she’s not one to abuse it. For one adored around the globe, Welch gushes with humility and gratitude, often looking surprised, still, that anybody at all wants to listen to her music, let alone one sold-out arena after another. Her on-stage banter could sound hammy and insincere in different hands — all love, peace and more love. But the blue eyes under the heavy bangs tell the real story. Welch might be a sweet little hippie, but she is earnest about it all. And once you believe a singer, once you trust that to the hilt, that’s when a special relationship develops between artist and audience.
And that’s why, for much of her stunning set, her crowd is stuck between singing every word while dancing maniacally and staring at her, mesmerized. Often, a middle ground is found. A glance around those nearest to us reveals wide eyes firmly fixed on Florence, while the body sways gently. If there was anything remotely sinister about Florence or the Machine, this devotion could be seen as vaguely cult-like.
Behind her, the Machine is majestic. These musicians are creating the most stunning, often symphonic and even operatic music. Like a well-oiled "machine" though, we don't need to look at them to know that they’re operating perfectly, allowing the visual focus to remain on the singer, as is intended.
For the set list, we get a bouquet of songs from Lungs, including faves like “Dog Days Are Over,” “Rabbit Heart,” her soaring cover of “You’ve Got the Love,” and closing number “Drumming Song.” There are a couple of gems from the sophomore Ceremonials, including a hair-raising “What the Water Gave Me.” And, of course, we get a handful from the new How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, like the title track, and “Various Storms & Saints,” the latter a particularly big treat for Denver, as Welch says that the group had never played it live before.
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That’s the sort of thing that makes a crowd feel special, and Welch has the ability, and warmth, to throw those sort of pressies out like a red-headed lady-Santa. With those vibes flooding the Pepsi, perhaps it’s no surprise that a gentleman sitting four rows behind us chooses the closing notes of the set to successfully propose to his girlfriend. It's just that sort of night.
On another day and opening up for many other people, Grimes could easily have stolen the show. Not from Florence — nobody could do that on current form, but still, the Canadian singer/producer gave it a damn fine go.
The thing that sets Grimes apart from many young electro-pop stars to whom she might be compared is her eclecticism and her variety of influences, ranging from punk and metal to every subgenre of electronic music.
The hooks are unrelenting on deceptively dark tunes like “Flesh Without Blood” and “Kill Vs. Maim,” and Grimes herself is at her best when she goes all The Exorcism of Emily Rose on us, writhing and screeching like something very, very unholy. Then she’s back to her regular self — cooing and dancing on “Oblivion.” It’s that shape-shifting ability that should propel her to headlining these venues in a couple of years or so.