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From Outside Lands 2018: Going to Church with Florence + The Machine

There are only a few places people go to feel closer to a higher power—take your church, mosque, or shrine as examples. For me, it used to be my local Sunday school class, where our elderly teacher brought homemade nian gao and espoused beliefs of love and compassion as a way to keep us safe in the afterlife—or at least, to make our existence on Earth a little kinder.

My Sunday school days have been long over. But attending Florence + the Machine’s Outside Lands concert evoked a similar space—one where kindness wasn’t a gift but an expectation. “I want to see as many people on shoulders as possible,” Florence Welch said. Whether or not you were best friends or complete strangers didn’t matter. “Lift them up!” she exclaimed. “Give them a little rest...that’s a good friend.” Small self-sacrifices were made out of empathy for other concert-goers. Another—perhaps weirder one, Welch joked—was demanded: “We’re all going to put our phones away.” And if someone didn’t comply with preserving the sacred space, Welch offered others a few words to say: “Excuse me, could you put your phone away? We’re trying to have an experience.”

That experience found its root in collective love—Welch was hellbent on making sure it happened, asking each other to embrace one another, to tell your neighbor that you loved them. “This is all our hometown,” Welch preached. “We’re all here together and we all belong here.”

Sometimes, Welch glowed onstage like a lighthouse, backlit in a yellow light, further reflected by the billowing fabric of her nightgown as she made fast strides along the platform or pivoted in a single circle during “Cosmic Love”’s twinkling instrumental stretch. Sometimes, Welch conducted the air, feeling the music as an extra-worldly experience. “I always think when I’m playing I’m outside of myself,” she had mentioned at an earlier event that day. “...Sometimes when you’re playing, something takes over you.” 

That undefinable “something” arises from the music, where Welch likes “the idea of putting really big, unanswerable spiritual questions in pop songs,” as she said in a New York Times interview. Her music is sprinkled with references to vague religious attributes—like angels and choirs. She makes allusions to the cosmos, the sun and the moon. In her most recent album, “High as Hope,” Welch tackled issues that were less abstract, and a little closer to home. In the first line of “Hunger,” she sings about an eating disorder she struggled with when she was younger: “At 17, I started to starve myself / I thought that love was a kind of emptiness.” At the concert, Welch experiment with the vocal nuances of “Hunger,” taking long pauses for dramatic effect, and adjusting the intonations of last few choruses in a stripped-down, mellower version than the studio-produced one.

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Whether she intends to create it or not, Welch’s concert experience is much like that of a spiritual one, one where the devotion is to the music than a specific religion. During “Dog Days Are Over,” the audience burst into a thunderous, synchronized clapping. She invited the audience to join in during “Sweet Nothing,” beckoning them to sing the lyrics back to her. At one point, Welch asked the concert-goers to hold hands for the next song. Continuously, she called for compassion, the very thing that many flock to religion for (and many times, unfortunately, are denied of in those spaces). During “Patricia,” a tribute to Patti Smith, Welch echoed “It’s such a wonderful thing to love / It’s such a wonderful thing to love” with poignancy and a subtle anxiety, as if this was the one lesson that had to be learned that night, above all else.

And of course, that love was tied along with faith—not necessarily in any god, but in each other, and in the music. “If it’s messy right now, I believe in you. It’s going to be fine,” Welch promised. “My heart hurts a lot these days, but I do believe in you. And I believe in love.”

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at grace.li@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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