This year’s British Summer Time in London’s Hyde Park was all about big name female performers. ‘Welcome to the matriarchy!’ Florence Welch thusly declared on stage last night, before a crowd of 65,000 people. ‘It’s fun!’
But even with iconic names like Celine Dion on board, the biggest signee was probably EGOT-winner Barbra Streisand. Why? Because a) she’s the best-selling female recording artist in the US ever, with 72 million albums sold. And b), rather unbelievably, she’s only performed around 100 concerts in a career spanning six decades.
Sure, I only knew a handful of songs. And yes, it was beyond annoying to only hear snippets of two of her best-known hits. (Woman In Love and Enough Is Enough, her classic disco duet with the late Donna Summer, were part of a medley). But I still found it humbling to spend an evening with a talent like Barbra.
Her voice was always powerful, clear and emotive. I got teary at the wisdom and heartbreak she channeled for her desperately sad cover of Send In the Clowns, from the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music.
Then there’s her personality, which is warm and inviting – if actorly. I’ve never known a performer talk at such length between songs. For the most part, it was super cute. (‘My driver asked me if I went to the Pride [in London] parade yesterday,’ she explained pouring tea from a china teapot. ‘Why would I go? I knew I would see everyone there here tonight!’). But I must admit I was a bit put off to learn she was reading most of it from an autocue.
A flawless set from Canadian songstress Celine – honed over years on the Vegas strip – kicked off this year’s festival with glamor and aplomb. She opened with old classic Power Of Love, before pepping things up underrated uptempo gems I’m Alive and That’s The Way It Is.
Gay men made the majority of the Golden Circle area during the performance, which featured iconic hits The Power Of Love, All By Myself and Think Twice. (The latter – a UK number one – is rarely performed in America, where it charted at number 95).
Then there was My Heart Will Go On, which I haven’t voluntarily listened to – neigh, have actively avoided – since the 90s. But I was surprised by the fresh, beautiful, controlled rendition of it here. Throughout, Celine’s voice was astonishingly powerful and filled Hyde Park.
For me, the evening was not without its shortcomings. Many of Celine’s biggest hits are covers (for example, The Reason), so why she chose to add yet more is beyond me. She took on Prince’s Kiss and Purple Rain: both ill-fitting and superfluous. By River Deep, Mountain High, we were veering into boring wedding party vibes. And to end with a sugary take on John Lennon’s Imagine was actually annoying.
But, for the most part, Celine had me and the audience in the palm of her hand. I adored the costumes – acid bright trouser suits, striking throwback gowns – and, naturally, the famously eccentric/deadpan stage banter.
Florence + The Machine
A decade ago, I was officially Florence + The Machine’s biggest ‘stan’. Although I don’t think that (problematic) word existed at the time. So, ‘flan’, perhaps?
Certainly, I was a slave for the extreme emotions in her music. For her Kathy from Wuthering Heights stage-schtick. As such, I caught her live several times. (There’s a wonderfully dramatic lyric on Howl, actually – from her debut, Lungs, still one of my favorite records ever – that perfectly mirrors the way she attacks the stage: ‘The saints can’t help me now, the ropes have been unbound, I hunt for you with bloodied feet across the hallow’ed ground.’)
Alienated by the unbearable bombast of Shake It Off, my interest waned after her second album. I’ve dipped into subsequent releases and liked the odd song, but I ‘flanned’ no more. I hadn’t seen her live since 2012.
But last night, I fell in love all over again. Whether twirling elegantly in flowy chiffon for nice songs (the outstanding Cosmic Love, the always-fun Dog Days Are Over), or contorting her body into animalistic positions and snarling for the aggressive, almost scary ones (Only If For A Night, What Kind Of Man), I couldn’t take my eyes off this very physical performer.
To my surprise, I knew almost every song – proving I’ve been subconsciously more engaged than I thought. I found her voice impeccable and often beautiful. It’s certainly less shouty than in eras past – even on polarizing Candi Station cover You’ve Got the Love.
‘Florence blew my mind’
The performance was taken to the next level by huge, fantastically effective split screens. At random, they showed beauty shots of the lady herself, scenes of nature and live footage from around the stage. These including shots of Florence from behind, looking out at the crowd, grounding the viewer in the present moment.
Always a sign of the length and quality of a performer’s back catalogue, my only criticism was the absence of some of my favored Florence songs. From Lungs: Howl, Drumming Song, Blinding (possibly my favorite album track ever?). Then, from Ceremonials: What the Water Gave Me and Spectrum.
The latter song – specifically the Calvin Harris remix, Spectrum (Say My Name) – was an especially curious omission, given it’s Florence’s only UK number one single. It would’ve been a more impactful closer than Shake It Off. Which, nevertheless, I still managed to enjoy.
While Barbra sometimes got a little lost on stage, and Celine delivered a set that was brilliant but predictable, Florence blew my mind.