The only thing more nerve-racking than covering “Try A Little Tenderness” with Kanye West — who heavily samples the song on his Watch The Throne single “Otis” — in the front row would be performing the soul classic for Otis Redding himself. Unfortunately, Florence Welch is about 45 years too late to perform for Redding, but at the MTV Unplugged taping for Florence + the Machine back in December, the U.K. songstress felt — and acknowledged — the Yeezy pressure. Yet in her own delicate way, she barreled through the song, replacing Redding’s raw energy with a stripped-down vulnerability that epitomized why MTV’s Unplugged franchise exists in the first place.
It wasn’t the only cover Welch and her backing band — comprised of harp, piano, guitars, percussion, and notably, a gospel choir and an orchestra of strings — took on that mid-December evening at the Angel Orensanz Center on NYC’s Lower East Side. For her take on”Jackson” — made most famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — Welch saddled up with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, a musician whose praises she sang to the highest degree before he took the stage. The duo ran through the song twice, and the end result — which appears both in the Unplugged special that aired last night (April 8) on MTV and on Florence’s new Unplugged live album — is a little more mysterious than the Man in Black’s. Still, the vibe between Welch and Homme was strictly mentor-mentee, not to be muddled by their sultry vocals together.
For her own songs, Welch and co. opted for more elaborate arrangements, especially for songs off her latest album, Ceremonials. Despite the decision to go un-Unplugged at times, fans familiar with the instrumental complexity of recent singles like “What the Water Gave Me” and “Shake It Out” could see why stripping down such songs completely would be a struggle. Florence + the Machine’s breakout single, “Dog Days Are Over,” remained mostly intact, its main energy source from handclaps, pulsating percussion, and the vocals of the backing gospel choir. Still, those hearing Welch present Ceremonials album cut “Breaking Down” with little more than her stunning voice and a piano got the full Unplugged effect — and wanted more. Welch is simply too powerful (yet nuanced) of a vocalist to not go a cappella when the occasion arises, allowing only her voice to completely fill the former synagogue. Less can be more, despite what Florence + the Machine’s two albums may suggest.
As for aesthetic decisions that undoubtedly hit the mark, the atmosphere of the Angel Orensanz synagogue — decorated with scads of candles, soaked in purple light and made even more intimate by 400 fans packed like sardines — perfectly suited Welch and her brand of gothic pop. And with how soft-spoken Welch was and how demurely she acted on stage, one would think the singer was behaving as she would in church — or at least having a spiritual moment. Then again, when you’re Florence Welch, when aren’t you having a spiritual moment?
MTV Presents Unplugged: Florence + the Machine Set List
“Only If For A Night”
“Never Let Me Go”
“Try a Little Tenderness”
“No Light, No Light”
“What the Water Gave Me”
“Shake It Out”
“Dog Days Are Over”
— Jillian Mapes, CBS Local