On a mild San Francisco Saturday evening, as day plodded toward night, an apparition captured the collective heart of a crowd of more than 25,000. Clad in no more than a thin, white nightgown, the ethereal being flowed across the stage, her pale bare feet seeming to never really touch solid ground. Before anyone could fully process the shining specter that stood before them, she began to sing, her clear voice ringing out across Golden Gate Park: “Hold onto each other / Hold onto each other / Hold onto each other.”
And hold onto one another the audience members did, steadying themselves as they marveled at the spectacle before them. Expectations undoubtedly ran high at Florence + the Machine’s Outside Lands performance. Like the near-weightless being that Florence Welch resembled upon her first careful step onstage, the group exceeded such anticipations, and then some.
Throughout her set, the soft-spoken Welch seamlessly glided through a carefully curated song lineup, her presence just as tender, delicate, unbridled and bold as her breathy vocals and breathtaking lyricism.
Welch’s physicality alone entranced viewers, her body speaking as clearly as her words. At one moment, Welch would stand tenderly onstage, unmoving, as she crooned into the microphone. The next, she would gallop wildly across the stage, head thrown back, arms spread wide. Witnessing her movement — the sudden, unexpected changes, the way each motion fit perfectly into the mosaic of her performance — was hypnotizing.
And yet, for the extensive reach of Welch’s performance, watching her onstage felt intimate in a way that is often impossible with such a large audience. When the singer perched upon one of the large speakers flanking the stage during “Only If for a Night” and began to conduct onlookers via swoops of her arms, audience members felt as if she were guiding them directly. When she asked if they were ready to dance with the band, they all nodded and screamed their approval, as if the appeal had been directed to each of them individually. And when she offered words of comfort and hope in the face of pain, they closed their eyes and reflected upon their own hardships, to which her words surely alluded.
“If it’s messy right now, it’s fine. I’m with you,” Welch breathed in her surprisingly small voice. “My heart hurts a lot right now, but I believe in people, and I believe in love.”
As evidenced by the thousands in attendance, to say that Welch’s poetic music has resonated with many would be an understatement. Witnessing the author and singer of such works, however, brought them to vivid life in a fashion achieved by only the most successful of live performers. As Welch sang, one could viscerally feel her experiences — the nostalgia of home in “South London Forever,” the aching desire expressed in “Hunger.”
Aware of her influence over her audience, Welch made a series of requests to viewers in order to render their experience even more magical. “Hold hands,” she said, later following it with, “Hug a stranger.” Under her guidance, these otherwise awkward acts felt natural, even beautiful. Upon Welch’s request, the majority-screenager audience even slipped its phones away.
Though spectacular onstage, Welch made even firmer impressions off of it. During “What Kind of Man,” the group’s final, pre-encore number, Welch leaped off her perch and flitted throughout the venue aisles, stopping occasionally to touch desperately outreached hands and even resting her forehead on that of one young man and bringing him to tears.
As Welch exited the stage one final time, followed by her band, spirits soared, more elevated even than during the pre-show anticipation. High on the music, on the intoxication of proximity to a musical idol’s presence, audience members blinked as if waking from a reverie — an emotional altitude, one might say, as high as hope.