Went to see Florence + The Machine and The Staves at Manchester Arena on Friday night.
I’ve never been to an Arena show before, and was somewhat apprehensive because, traditionally, I’ve always been a Roadhouse (RIP) and Night & Day girl. When bands I like get too big for those venues (or the Deaf Institute), I’ll go and see them at the Academies, but that’s the biggest set of venues I’d been to until Friday night.
Because the traffic has been so awful this past week, largely due to the ongoing situation with the sinkholes in the Mancunian Way and it being autumn when the traffic is always awful, I used up my time in lieu so I could come home, change and get my tea before going out again.
I was braced for the worst, traffic wise, when I left at 6pm but it was a surprisingly smooth ride into the city centre, and I got in at about ten to 7pm. I then walked very leisurely over to the Arena, which was easy to find. Lots of steps and once you’re inside it’s like being in a cross between St Pancras International and the Arndale: Weird. Like a city within a city. There’s food, bars, merchandise, and the signage is like train station signage as you navigate your way to your block of seating, row, and then seat.
All the standing places had gone by the time I booked my ticket, so I had to go for a seat instead: Another first as I’ve never been to a seated gig before.
The Staves were the support act, and they were brilliant: Impeccable harmonies and lots of echo. They had a shrewd setlist as well, in that they opened with an acapella number (always a good way to grab a crowd’s attention, plus it showed off their gorgeous harmonies) and followed it with the strikingly guitar led ‘Black and White’. They ended the set with the irresistable Nashville esque sing a long that is ‘Teeth White’. In-between, they played a lovely set and did their damnedist to build up a rapport with politely interested but not ecstatic audience. One of the three sisters remarked at one point that she’d been a student in Manchester, and that she’d spent “Some of the best, and most hungover, moments of my life here” which was sweet. The band are returning to Manchester for their own headline gig at the Albert Hall on 24th October.
Florence + The Machine came on at about 9pm. From my seat I had a good view of the stage, but sideways on. This meant I got a good view of the comings and goings on and off stage during The Staves set (they gave the sound engineer friendly pats on the back as they exited) but less so during Florence + The Machine as they used a smoke machine (not excessively) and as such the band were only visible in silhouette. The band entered from my side of the stage, as The Staves had, but Florence walked across the area in front of the stage to say hello and make friends with the audience before going up the steps on the other side to join the rest of the band onstage.
The set was amazing, and Florence is a very lively, warm, and generous performer. She runs about the stage a lot, putting in dramatic flourishes, pogoing, and twirling like a ballet dancer with an interest in northern soul, and she loves invading the audience, she did this about three or four times, and security seemed up for this and managed to keep up with her. When she first got on stage, she brought with her a blue banner she’d been handed by one of the audience in front of the stage, and held it up. Later, she acquired more banners ( a very spangly ‘We Are Shining’ was particularly impressive), had bras thrown at her, and – at her own instigation – other items of clothing.
After three songs (‘What the water gave me’ was first, then ‘Ship to wreck’, then ‘Shake It Out’) she made everyone stand up for ‘Rabbit Heart’, which was particularly excellent as I’d wanted to stand up but no one in my block was doing so and I didn’t want to stand up if I was blocking someone else’s view. As it was, the crowd obliged, and I was then able to stay standing for most of the rest of the set (I did sit down for ‘Long & Lost’, which is one of the quieter songs, but only because my feet hurt) and generally treat it as a standing gig, which was cool. I had a bloody good dance to ‘Delilah’ and ‘Queen of peace’, but couldn’t do the arm movements I’d do if I was dancing to them at home because I would have twatted the people in front and to the sides if I had, which was a shame. Anyway, I had a seat free next to me so I could go a bit mad, dancing wise, albeit not with my arms.
‘Shake it out’ was a highlight as we were pressed into service as Florence’s choir, and she conducted us for it. ‘Spectrum’ was another highlight, with everyone encouraged to dance to that one, and Florence ended the song with what can only be described as a northern soul pirouette, that is; spinning slowly but with one leg lifted slightly and pointed out at ankle level. She kept this up for about two minutes as the harp finished, and the result was very impressive.
It’s occurred to me that the band used the big screens either side of the stage in a fairly innovative way, both by having Florence lift up people’s banners on stage so everyone else could see them, but also so we could play ‘Where’s Florence?’ when she left the stage during ‘Rabbit Heart’ and legged it down the gap between the standing section and my side of the arena, over to, and up, the stairs in-between segments near the back. She sang part of the song from there before coming back down and invading the crowd in front of the stage. Very energetic. They played the balearic keyboard extension of ‘Rabbit Heart’ as well, which helped it build and allowed Florence license to roam, run and generally explore, all barefoot of course.
I also thought the approach to ‘Mother’ with Florence kneeling on stage in front of a backdrop of a big red sun was very evocative, and in the spirit of the song, which is very Monteray Pop Festival 1967 (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane..) The band then went into the blissful ‘Queen of Peace’, and followed it with ‘Spectrum’, which we all went obligingly berserk to, before concluding with ‘Dog Days Are Over’, in which the harpist got his own spotlight for what must be one of the most distinctive intros of recent memory, and we were urged to hug the people next to us and remove any items of clothing we didn’t need. I did think about doing this, but decided (after a brief speculative glance) that neither I nor the bloke next to me were up for hugging a complete stranger, and that I would get cold going home in only my bra, and wouldn’t part with my tiara because I want to wear it to work next week. Other folk were more obliging, but Florence didn’t take her shirt off as she did at Glastonbury, so I felt less guilty about not joining in.
The encores were the searing ‘What Kind of Man’, during which Florence dropped to her knees like she’d been shot when that ferociously distinct and jagged guitar kicked in, and ‘Drumming Song’. which is another great one to dance to. I emerged sweaty, with sore feet and achey legs, but blissfully happy and slightly disoriented when the lights came up.
Getting home was a bit surreal because I took the wrong exit from the Arena and ended up on Trinity Way, having to wade through hordes of opportunistic bootleggers flogging bootleg merch while also trying to navigate the hordes of similarly confused, disorientated, and – in many cases – bladdered, Florence fans. Then I realised I was going the wrong way and had to turn around and do it all again in reverse until I found the Hunts Bank exit, where I’d come in. I almost got it right from there, but somehow ended up going via Corporation Street and a whole area near Exchange Square that’s cordoned off for Metrolink works, where the walkway was very narrow and it was weirdly eerie and surreal, like some post industrial ghost town. Still, eventually the trail of Arena gig goers emerged at the junction of Cross Street and Market Street, and many of us continued down Market Street to Piccadilly.
It was while I was at the bus stop waiting for a 192 that I realised the downside of the Arena’s ‘no leaving the venue to have a fag’ policy because I ended up surrounded by fellow gig goers, all chain smoking furiously, plus a guy with a massive e-cigarette, the size and shape of the fattest cigar ever, who kept enveloping me in a cloud of vaguely blueberry smelling vapour every time he exhaled. As I was standing at least a metre away from him, this was quite a feat.
There was a lot of post gig chatter on the bus, and I think it reinforced for me the very female nature of Florence fandom in some ways, because the ones most passionately talking about the band were the girls. I am reminded of all those bras thrown at the stage last night, and the quiet, shy, red headed girls waiting to take their seats in the arena. Not to mention the ceremonial gifting of the flowery headband to the girl in the audience during ‘Rabbit Heart’.
As excellent as the gig was though, I did find being in the seated area an odd experience. I discussed it with a friend at work on Saturday, who pointed out that it’s not just at Arena shows that people treat a gig as a nightclub and spend equal time in the bar or in the loos as they do actually watching the band they’ve paid to see; you’re just aware of the scale of the phenomenon much more with an Arena show because you have to keep letting people to and fro past you.
The discovery of this phenomenon (or, at least, the scale of it) dovetails very nicely with a documentary I was listening to earlier today about Jacques Attali, who wrote a book called Noise in 1976, which predicted that the value of recorded music would crash, and that the music industry was on the brink of a crisis. The documentary discusses this ‘crisis of proliferation’ of recorded music, and how hard it is for musicians to make a living these days.
It’s been known for several years now that musicians are making more money from touring than they are from from record sales, and the proliferation of live entertainment, and the effort bands now put into tours and gigs does, unfortunately, perhaps account for the casual nature of gig attendees: Gigs are less of an event now, it seems, which is odd to me. If I care enough about a band to pay £40 for a ticket, I want to watch the whole show, not spend my night getting bladdered and going back and forth from my seat to the loos. Fortunately, Florence + The Machine are a band who believe in not only giving the audience a really good night, but also in engaging with and forging a connection with their audience, and that kind of optimism can, fortunately, penetrate even the most hardened dilettante.
Thank you Florence for making them stand up, and for putting on such a great show.