Every year, some 400 bands and musicians, most of whom you’ve never heard of, descend on Brighton to showcase themselves at The Great Escape. Many you’ll never hear of again, just a handful emerge as contenders for future success and only one or two go on to become huge.
Let’s rewind to May 2014 and a line in my review of that year’s Great Escape. “Even though I knew none of his music, I’d come to see Hozier, a much talked-about singer-songwriter from Ireland. He was playing in a small circus-like tent. It was an outstanding performance, full of passion, emotion and subtlety.”
Here’s how I summed it up: “No question that of all the new artists I got to see, Hozier ended up being my big tip from TGE14. Just watch him become huge.”
Some 18 months later, guess what? He did just that.
If proof were needed, on the day he played Portsmouth (there was no Brighton date on this tour), his debut album went platinum in the USA. That’s one million sales, which in these days of streaming and downloads is impressive. Perhaps even more impressive ‘Take Me To Church’ was the biggest streaming song of 2014 and is currently the 5th most streamed track ever on Spotify.
No wonder then that there was a huge queue outside the Guildhall ahead of the gig.
The night itself was a full-on Irish affair. Opening for Hozier were Wyvern Lingo, three girls from County Wicklow, two of whom used to play in his band. As opening acts go, they were a cut above, possessing catchy songs and impressively lush harmonies.
With a predominantly standing audience and a bar just a few feet away, the atmosphere was more like an Irish pub than your usual gig with a constant stream of beer-wielding punters going back and forth. The sold out crowd were certainly in good spirits as Hozier took the stage. Apart from a huge backdrop bearing his name and a slick light show, Hozier himself could’ve been playing to a few hundred in a pub, rather than 2,500 at the Guildhall.
Sonically, it was as good as I’ve heard at the venue, especially Rory Doyle’s pounding drums which make such a massive contribution to Hozier’s songs, as do the soaring backing vocals provided by Rachael Lampa and Lorraine Barnes. That huge gospel sound, so prevalent in ‘Take Me To Church’, has its origins in Dublin, as Hozier started his professional music career as a vocalist for the Irish choral group, Anuna, while studying at Trinity College.
Those vocals shone during ‘Someone New’, a track he introduced as being “a fun anti-love song.” It’s one of his most positive, most up-tempo tunes, featuring uplifting choral harmonies and Alana Henderson’s ELO-like cello. However, the trademark Hozier sound — if we can call it that — was arguably best showcased on the next song, one of two covers he performed.
When he played three dates in Brixton a few days earlier, Hozier had given a heartfelt tribute to one of his musical heroes who was born there before covering ‘Young Americans’, one of Bowie’s most soulful songs.
So popular did the tribute prove, it remained in the set and for me was the highlight of the gig. Slowed down and performed almost acapella with everyone in the six-piece band contributing vocals and the audience clapping along, the 41-year-old song was also the night’s emotional highpoint, especially with that now even more poignant line “Where have all our heroes gone?”
With just the one album to draw from, it was the only surprise of a somewhat predictable set list. And if there’s one criticism of Hozier, it’s that he’s a somewhat predictable, one-dimensional performer. one who to me does not exude sufficient star quality. I can only compare him to James Bay who I also saw recently. There are many similarities between them— they’ve even toured together — but having also seen both artists at the very beginning of their careers, it’s the man with the fedora who has developed his stagecraft and charisma the most and who has best mastered holding an audience.
Bearing in mind this was his first ever visit to Portsmouth, there were too many times where Hozier lost his. In the past, he has described himself as “an awkward person, a gangly introvert” and all too often onstage, he still is. As I mentioned, his audience were particularly boisterous and many were as happy to chat through much of the set as to focus on what was going on onstage. That was most notable during the quiet numbers, such as ‘In A Week’, his tender duet with Wyvern Lingo’s Karen Cowley, whose enchanting harmonies struggled to compete with people chatting.
Rather than saving ‘Take Me To Church’ for the encore, Hozier chose to play it at the end of the set proper. For me, that was a big mistake. Of course it was the song that got the night’s biggest reaction, the one that got everyone’s phones out and had everyone singing along. How he could do with a few more dark gospel tunes like that.
There’s no doubt ‘Take Me To Church’ should have been saved for the encore, instead Hozier returned with a dour acoustic version of ‘Cherry Wine’ and once again he lost the audience. His band returned for a cover of Lennon & McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’, again hardly the most uplifting of songs, before ending with the moody ‘Work Song’, which although ponderous in pace, at least gave everyone on stage another opportunity to showcase their vocals.
Call me old-fashioned, but I always think it’s best to end a gig on a high note and it’s why most artists leave their biggest song to last. As the worldwide smash-hit it is, ‘Take Me To Church’ was made to be an encore song.
One can’t but think if the sequencing of the songs had been different, the gig would have built to a crescendo, rather than ending, as it did, feeling somewhat fatigued. On a night when the craic certainly flowed among the audience, come the morning, I’m sure many of them felt the same way.
Words: Gary Marlowe
Photo: Images Out Of The Ordinary
Follow Hozier at @Hozier
Hozier’s self-titled debut album is out now