What artist most exceeded your expectations when you saw them live for the first time? For me it was Hozier. I saw him live in London just as the hype surrounding ‘Take Me To Church’ was reaching a fever-pitch, after following his meteoric rise right from his first EP. In a sold out show in Shepherd’s Bush there was an electricity in the air which I’ve only experienced a handful of times, the kind that makes just another date on a tour feel like something special and unique. To this day it remains one of my favourite gigs. Several years down the line, and with a new album under his belt, I decided to see if the magic was still there.
I can’t say I’ve ever been to a gig at a city hall before, so it was a unique experience right from the start. While it was a beautiful setting, much to my chagrin it was a seated venue. I long for the day when I’m able to see Hozier up close in a normal standing crowd. As it was I found myself recreating The Thinker’s pose in my assigned seat trying to decide what to make of opening act David Keenan. There’s no denying that he possessed a powerful voice to rival that of the main man himself. He offered a passionate performance; and while at some points it manifested itself in staccato bursts that felt rather jarring, for the most part it was the kind of performance that you couldn’t help but be drawn in by. The only trouble however is that he had possibly the most broad Irish accent I’ve ever heard, and as someone who was raised on The Dubliners that’s saying something. Combined with his very idiosyncratic lyrical style this sadly made his songs very difficult to follow.
As the main event began with ‘As It Was’, one of the underrated highlights of Wasteland, Baby!, it was clear right from the start that there was still plenty of magic to be found. Hozier has the kind of voice that feels like it should be issuing down decrees from Olympus itself, but he also exudes a down-to-Earth energy that helps make a vast crowd of strangers feel like a family gathering. His talent and stage presence was every bit as striking as the last time I saw him.
What has changed however, besides an expanded repertoire of hits, is his band. The new group of musicians that he has surrounded himself with had a much bigger role to play, throwing some jam energy into the mix with each member having their time to shine in the spotlight. The drummer in particular was on fire the whole night. The band brought such enthusiasm to the new material, and even tweaked the arrangements of some old favourites. Though something was slightly off about the reworked ‘Someone New’, the night’s more stripped back version of ‘From Eden’ was an absolute delight.
There are always some songs that take on new life in a live setting. Songs that didn’t quite grab you at first listen on the record, but then you look at them in a new light after hearing them in the flesh. ‘Dinner & Diatribes’ and ‘Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)’ were two such lucky benefactors from this phenomenon. With the band playing a heavy blues stomp as unrelenting as a speeding freight train, Hozier sang like a man possessed.
After a lengthy torrent of thank yous for seemingly every member of the band and extended crew (and likely every single member of the audience too if he had the time), Hozier closed the show with the glorious gospel of ‘Work Song’. The atmosphere was very different to the last time I saw him, albeit no less magical. The difference is perhaps best shown with ‘Cherry Wine’, the most stripped back song on the setlist. When I first heard him perform it the crowd was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, so intensely focused on the artist in from of them. This time however it was one of the biggest sing-along moments of the night. Hozier went from a focal point on the stage, an electrifying epicentre of hype, to a catalyst for something greater, something that brings people together. And when it comes down to it, that’s more what an artist should aspire to do.