Live: Hozier @ Portsmouth Guildhall
Listen to Hozier’s eponymously titled debut album a few times and you soon appreciate there’s a lot more to the 25 year-old from County Wicklow than a song that takes a pop at the Catholic Church. Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a truly consummate songwriter and lyricist whose music exudes a depth and soul that belie his modest years – and the success of the hit single Take Me To Church has propelled him from a Dublin unknown to a global megastar. Following a string of festival appearances and an oversubscribed world tour in 2015, Hozier is back for a series of sold-out European dates and tonight I had the pleasure of catching his show at Portsmouth’s regal Guildhall.
I like the Guildhall. A lot. Constructed in 1890, the building boasts an elegant facade that somehow survived the pounding that laid waste to much of its surroundings in the Second World War. It’s big enough to feel that you’re at an ‘event’ whilst just about retaining a sense of intimacy, and being managed by a charitable trust, it hasn’t suffered the indignity of being named after a mobile phone network. What’s not to like?
Tonight’s show was a sell-out and it was even pretty busy for the support, Wyvern Lingo. Also hailing from Wicklow, the all female three-piece with a good line in three-part harmonies delivered seven songs of tightly performed dreamy synth-pop, with a few rhythmic stabs, licks and chops thrown in from stage right by guitarist Saoirse Duane. At the close, the crowd offered generous applause before anticipation overwhelmed the floor in advance of the main event.
Opening with subdued lighting and the graceful ballad Like Real People Do, Hozier established an immediate intimacy with the Portsmouth audience. It was not long though before the full band up-tempo numbers started ringing out: Angel Of Small Death And The Codeine Scene (a strangely jolly tune for such a dark lyric) and Jackie And Wilson put smiles on faces and had the audience swinging their hips. At the commencement of To Be Alone, Hozier engaged in some community call and response singing of the guitar melody, Freddie Mercury style. The crowd was way ahead of him: “It seems there are a few people in here that already know this song”.
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Wyvern Lingo were only just receding into mid-memory when Hozier welcomed back Karen Cowley, the arresting blonde singer from stage left. She returned to sing the duet In A Week. Cowley seemed very comfortable in this role and that’s not surprising given that she performed it on the album. Hozier explained the narrative: The Wicklow Hills just south of Dublin; beautiful, peaceful, but usually referenced in news bulletins accompanying the words: “A body has been found in”… The song is about a pair of lovers who go to the hills “to lie down and do what lovers do”. A deliberately ambiguous explanation given that the lyrics point to a couple who go there to die. Whatever it’s really about, the acoustic performance of this beautiful, haunting ballad was sublime.
Hozier is known for putting his own twist on the occasional covers he plays. Through this tour, he has performed a funky, syncopated version of The Beatles’ Blackbird and we heard this in the encore; but part way through the set there was a pause to pay respect to Bowie. The band played an acoustic version of Young Americans; all seven of them contributing with expansive and generous harmony vocals. It was a beautifully performed, genuinely moving piece and a highlight of the entire evening.
A rousing rendition of Take Me To Church allied to obligatory mass mobile phone in the air wobbling closed the show and summonsed a standing ovation with coordinated foot stomp. For the encore, Hozier reappeared clutching an acoustic guitar and delivered a sweet performance of Cherry Wine. With the full band returning one final time, they closed the set with Blackbird and Work Song – relying on the audience to supply the requisite handclaps.
Before leaving, Hozier introduced the band and thanked practically every member of the production team, from lighting and sound engineers, to guitar technicians and stage managers. This modest, understated approach is a mark of the man and you wonder even after such a meteoric rise, whether he truly appreciates just how good he is. If he continues at the current rate, you feel it’s only a matter of time before he works it out just as we have.
Words & Photography by Simon Reed. For more of Simon’s great photos please see his website: www.musicalpictures.co.uk