Saturday night was the first of three sold out shows for Florence and the Machine at the Wiltern. Quite a triumph for anyone, but the fact that Florence Welsh (the brains and lungs behind the operation) has pulled it off at the tender age of 24 on the merits of her debut album which came out only last year, is doubly impressive. Fueled by radio play and critics adoration, the theater was humming with people as soon as the doors opened.
Those who got there early were lucky enough to catch the hot-blooded, bluesy garage rock of Hanni El Khatib. Dressed all in black with his hair slicked back and tattoos running up and down his arms, El Khatib looked every inch the very bad men that he sung about. His partner in crime, drummer Nick Fleming-Yaryan, provided a solid structure for El Khatib's wild guitar solos.
Bathed in crimson light, these two men filled the giant theater with the kind of music you'd want at the beginning of a bar fight or when Clint Eastwood rode into town with a knife in his boot. Peppered with dark tales of violent love, betrayal, and a city that's “dirty as fuck,” this was the kind of sound that crawled up your leg and made your hair stand on end. The set ended with his single “Dead Wrong” leaving the audience hungry for more. I guess we'll just have to be patient until his debut Will The Guns Come Out drops. Fortunately, Hanni El Khatib is a local, so I would imagine we'll hear it first.
The band that followed couldn't have been more different. The five-piece Grouplove took the stage and launched into a set that was filled with rainbows and sunshine and puppy dogs. Their set was full of cheesy pop songs with lyrics so cloyingly sweet that they wouldn't have been out of place a made for Disney TV movie. They sang about skinny dipping under the sea, missing their parents, and how their band mates were their soul mates. However, even the grumpiest curmudgeon (me) will admit that they did show heart. When her keyboard broke, Hannah Hooper took it as a challenge. “Let's do this!” she said clapping her hands, her blue dress sparkling, and launched into the song without it. There's something to be said for that.
When the curtain came up on Florence and the Machine, the stage had been transformed. Birdcages housing naked light bulbs were placed between the musicians and a giant wall of purple flowers framed Florence Welch who stood behind a microphone stand with flowers climbing up it and a single silver drum. Dressed all in white with a flowing gauzy skirt and bare feet, the flame-haired chanteuse, who has always had a flair for the dramatic, looked otherworldly as she picked up a drum stick and launched into “Drumming Song.” Any doubts the audience may have had about the woman who had named her album Lungs were eviscerated as soon as she began the chorus, “Louder than sirens/Louder than bells/ Sweeter than heaven/ And hotter than hell.” It was also around that time that the audience lost all their inhibitions about singing along.
Yes, it was one giant sing-a-long on Saturday night with Welch as the ringleader. It got so loud that she even thanked the “Los Angeles Choir” after all of her band members for their contributions to the set. Florence and the Machine played every single song off their debut album with the confidence and grace of a woman twice her age. She's become a very good showman. Every note had a flourish to accompany it and at one point Welch even donned a sparkling white cape to enhance the mood. The evening ended with a wild encore that included “Heavy In Your Arms,” “Kiss With A Fist,” and “Dog Days Are Over” which had people dancing in the isles despite security's desperate attempts to keep people behind the taped lines.
If you didn't catch Florence and The Machine on Saturday, you've still got one more chance to see her tonight at the Wiltern. Just be sure to warm up your vocal chords first.