During her MTV Unplugged session that aired Easter Sunday Florence Welch proved why she named her first album Lungs.
Though her voice fiercely registers on her records, freed from all those wall-of-sound arrangements it is truly something to behold. It’s not a perfect instrument, mind you. But every crack comes across like a world-weary badge of honor. When those final oh-whoa-ohs explode out of her throat during the a cappella closing of “Drumming Song,” it rattles you with Biblical force, like she isn’t just trying to put on a show. She’s trying to raise the dead. Kind of the perfect programming for Easter, huh?
Actually, Florence + the Machine’s entry into MTV’s venerable Unplugged franchise was perfect Sunday night fare for another reason too. With her delicate bone-colored dress and flaming red hair parted Druid-like down the middle, Welch could have been a stand-in for Carice van Houten as Melisandre on Game of Thrones. (Kanye West, sitting in the front row, could have been Salladhor Saan.)
Welch brought her decidedly witchy-woman vibe to the Lower East Side’s Angel Orensanz, a converted 1849 Gothic Revival synagogue. With tea-light candles glowing everywhere and patches of fuchsia and blue strategically projected for maximum otherworldliness, it was the ideal lair for Grand Guignol lyrics about cutting out “graceless hearts.” And the perfect concert venue for twenty-something women who grew up reading The Secret Garden by flashlight—which is to say, Welch’s target audience.
EW attended the taping at Angel Orensanz way back on December 15, and, to tell the truth, very little about the finished product deviates from the experience of actually being there. Welch only had to re-do two songs, “Drumming Song” and “Shake It Out,” for the camera crew. And she interacted only slightly more with the audience than in the final cut—wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and joking about the neon-colored straw that came with her water bottle. In between songs, Welch came across as demure and girly as she appears onscreen. Before her Kanye-approved rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness,” she hesitantly said, “Hopefully it all will go well.” So it can give you a bracing jolt when she gear-shifts from her shy inter-song demeanor into head-tilting, back-arching, vocal skyscraper mode. Sometimes she accomplished this quantum-leap within one song, like “Never Let Me Go” where one line she whispered (“The question I have for a sinner like me…”) is followed immediately by a full-throated belt.
Those bipolar shifts in tone are entirely derived from her vocal fluctuations, because Welch has defined herself as an extremely contained performer. She almost never moves around the stage during a song, feet remaining firmly planted in front of a mic stand. Her rendition of Ceremonials’ lead single “What the Water Gave Me” was the most demonstrative she got the entire evening, with her hands keeping time and seeming to pluck notes from the air, especially during that song’s melismatic yea-a-ae-a-ah banshee cries. For that and “Try a Little Tenderness,” she seemed genuinely transported into musical bliss.
There’s no denying it, listening to Welch can be a bit exhausting. So her more even-tempered cuts, like beautifully stripped-down, poco moto versions of “Breaking Down” and “No Light, No Light” seemed particularly refreshing. For both, she was accompanied by just a piano and harp, with the full orchestral string section that occupied the left part of the stage only adding intermittent punctuation.
It’s a cliché, but sometimes less really is more. After all, that’s the whole point of going Unplugged, right?
MTV Unplugged: Florence + the Machine Set List
“Only If For A Night”
“Never Let Me Go”
“Try a Little Tenderness”
“No Light, No Light”
“What the Water Gave Me”
“Shake It Out”
“Dog Days Are Over”
More from EW.com:
Album Review: Ceremonials
Adele, Florence and The Machine, Bon Iver, or Fleet Foxes: Who made EW’s album of the year?
Florence + The Machine behind the scenes: An EW video exclusive
Florence + The Machine debut trippy video for ‘Shake It Out': Watch here!