Florence Welch's fiery alto sounds especially dramatic under the ornate, arched roof of a 19th-century Gothic revival synagogue, a few hundred fans learned during a taping of an MTV Unplugged session, set to kick off the series' 2012 season April 8.
Around 300 people crammed into rows of gold seats in Manhattan's Angel Orensanz Foundation — home to the former Ansche Chesed Synagogue, built in 1849 — last December for an intimate Florence + the Machine show that featured songs from her hit debut Lungs and last year's celebrated Ceremonials in equal helpings. The stunning setting was lit with flickering candles lining the stage, strings of lights draped haphazardly behind the drum kit, and strange, bulbous chandeliers that hung precariously from an overhead beam. A harpist, string section, and choir, clad entirely in black, emerged trailed by Welch in a long, form-fitting lavender dress with a high neck and capped, layered sleeves.
With her signature fire-engine locks parted in the middle and tumbling to her shoulders in delicate finger waves, she launched the session with "Only If for a Night," the sweeping opener off her latest release. The choir offered support on the rumbling refrain while Welch transformed into an elegant conductor, waving her hands slowly and deliberately, turning her eyes skyward, and unleashing that signature, booming voice.
After running through a handful of tracks — including the lively "Drumming Song" and a cascading "Cosmic Love" with gentle, plinking harp — Welch surprised the crowd by cracking jokes in a tentative voice barely louder than a whisper. "I'm going to have so many drinks after this," she said, explaining it was the last of her endless string of shows before the holidays. "I'm going to have to be deposited at my mother's house."
There were surprises, too: Following a short break for a stage flip, Welch broke into her "favorite song," a pared-down but moving version of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." Shortly after, she offered a gushing introduction for an unexpected guest: "This is so exciting for me. He's one of my heroes and one of the best voices I've heard. I don't quite know what to say." On cue, fellow ginger Josh Homme emerged from the wings wearing a black pea coat and a broad smile. Though it's hard to imagine the 25-year-old indie-pop darling poring over Queens of the Stone Age liner notes, the pair delivered two takes of a vibrant, true-to-form rendition of the June Carter and Johnny Cash track "Jackson."
The highlight of the night, though, was the pair of kinetic hits saved for the finale. The plucky "Dog Days Are Over" lifted the subdued mood conjured by the new, darker material and prompted enthusiastic chair dancing and hand claps from the crowd. "Shake it Out," Welch's latest upbeat anthem, rattled the rafters with volume — "wo-oahs" from the choir and the violinists bowing in perfect unison — and heart.
"I think that was the special encore," Welch joked awkwardly after, sending the show to an abrupt halt.
Unpolished chatter, along with the retakes and makeup touch-ups that added to the behind-the-scenes charm, will likely be trimmed for TV audiences, leaving only the meat: a grand, sweeping scene and that irrepressible voice. See what made the cut April 8 at 11 p.m. ET on MTV and Unplugged.MTV.com.