The 700 year-old St John-at-Hackney is an indescribably beautiful building and a perfect setting for her devotional music. Accordingly, tonight (26th February) is predominantly drawn from her most intimate record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Looking at the stage before Welch and her Machine arrive tells you that this evening is going to be a stripped down performance, with a 12-string acoustic guitar, harp, drums and a mere (by her standards) two microphones on view.
Whilst it’s a 1,400 capacity venue, it feels like a living room compared to the last time we saw her at the cavernous Ally Pally, where she brought her triumphantly energetic Glastonbury set to London. But tonight it’s a tiny stage and she cuts her cloth accordingly, with the more expansive songs, such as “What The Water Gave Me” omitted from the set.
She’s introduced by War Child’s Chief Executive Rob Williams, who reminds us why we’re here and speaks proudly of the money this most remarkable charity has raised through putting on these concerts. When she takes the stage the customary white suit of the How Big… tour has been replaced by a more sombre evening gown. She opens with Lungs’ “Cosmic Love”, featuring just her voice and trusty harpist and the intensity of the recorded version is suitably refined and stunning in its simplicity. It sounds heartfelt and celestial and there’s a fittingly reverent hush from the audience, we are in a chapel after all.
It sets the scene for an evening of rearranged versions of her songs. “St Jude” has a mournful trumpet accompanying Florence’s voice as it uncoils around the song, reminding you that for all that they put on mighty stadium shows this is a very different kind of power on display - more graceful and contained, but with an equally emotional punch. There’s the sense she’s enjoying the freedom of the sparser arrangements of her songs and singing about the patron saint of lost causes in a church has a wonderful symmetry to it.
Even the more bombastic songs like “Queen Of Peace” - which was effectively a soul revue on record - benefit from the Unplugged nature of the performance. The soul delivery of the recording gives way to a more melancholy, resigned take. “Shake It Out” sees her asking the audience to be her “choir in this beautiful church” and with what sounds like a church organ accompaniment it feels like a hymn. As she sings the chorus there’s a palpable joy in her voice and she conducts the crowd as if they were indeed a choir, hitting an impossibly high note at the end for good measure.
Before “What Kind Of Man” she talks about the pain of making her records, but explains that with hindsight the experience feels beautiful, perhaps it’s the catharsis of playing them live on evenings such as this. Without the distorted guitar it presents the biggest challenge of the night in terms of arrangement but astutely the vocal keeps it serene. Whereas the recorded version was unadulterated fury the take on it tonight is more circumspect and the question “What kind of man loves like this?” seems resigned rather than angry.
The more plaintive songs are easier to translate into the setting but are still reworked. “Long & Lost” has a country feel that suits a song of lament and regret perfectly. “Caught” is introduced as being “super-sad” and with the voice and drums driving it, its tale of staying away from someone, even if you don’t really want to, shows itself to be one of the loveliest yet unheralded of her songs. When she ends it, conducting a singalong with the audience it’s genuinely moving to watch.
There’s also a cover thrown in, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Springs” introduced as “a band who I’m maybe one of the biggest fans of ever” and whilst the Stevie Nicks inflections are immediately apparent they fit with Florence’s own songs to a tee, the words “I know I could have loved you, but you wouldn’t let me” could have been written by her.
The closing “Dog Days Are Over” prompts a frenzied clapalong and it’s a wonderful celebration, with the song pausing briefly on the line “I never wanted anything from you…” before flying into the words “Happiness hit her like a bullet in the back”. It’s a joyous way to close such an enchanting evening.
As she proved at Glastonbury, Florence is a match for anyone on the big stage, but when she strips the songs right back they contain just as much power. The only regret one could draw from this magical performance is the chances of seeing her in such an intimate venue any time soon are slim at best. I’m sure War Child will have other ideas however, because Florence playing her songs in a church was a masterstroke.
Queen of Peace
Only If for a Night
Long & Lost
What Kind of Man
Ship to Wreck
Shake It Out
Dog Days Are Over