Updated: May 9, 2020
Image from waterfrontamphitheater.com
I’ve always been fascinated by the separation of work life and personal life. It is a nice ideal that a perfect balance can be struck between the two, but all too often it seems as though it remains just that - an ideal. Elusive, it avoids being brought to fruition as the “work” portion infringes on the borders of the “life” portion. However, most of that is in the context of a normal day job where the terms and phrases “nine to five”, “forty hour week”, “overtime”, and “paid time off” hold a great deal of significance. With regard to other pursuits within the realm of art, that balance is even more skewed but in a way that the artist’s freedom is amplified rather than stifled. While projects are constantly in progress and visions take on additions in the midst of being brought to life in a process that never seems to stop, the ever-present creativity driving that system allows the work to be an extension of self rather than a foreign, unnatural activity that requires separation. It is easy to view the art and the artist as being one in the same. Alternatively, it can come as a shock when the themes present in the art and the sense of urgency with which they are delivered do not seem to propel the artist in the same way. Although an extension, the art is also an outlet - a separation between the creative and the craft persists. In many of the concerts that I’ve attended, it has been difficult to discern where the boundary to one ends and the other begins. Absorbed by the experience, it seems as though the musician turns their attention inward to the messages that matter most to them and allow their voices to converge with the music to deliver a part of their psyche to the masses. The same was true of seeing Hozier at the BB&T Pavilion this past Friday, but there was a marked difference between the voice booming atop the music and the man from which it resonated.
To begin the night of music that followed the XPonential Music Festival taking place next door at Wiggins Park, local Philadelphia band Killiam Shakespeare warmed the crowd up with dreamy instrumental jams that seemed to hail from Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa. Anchored by spacey keyboards, guitar work that traversed the fretboard, and drums that seemed to vary time signatures at the drop of a coin, their brand of psychedelic progressive rock was an unexpected part of the night, making it all the more welcome. Following their set, fellow Philly natives Japanese Breakfast reigned in the instrumental daydreams while maintaining a wistful energy with their drum-driven alternative pop rock style. Led by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast is the stage name by which she performs with a backing band. With guitar that served as a melodic accent to the band’s wider sound, there was an undeniable West coast vibe intertwined with their set that fully revealed itself when Zauner briefly mentioned that she was originally from Eugene, Oregon. Incorporating guest horn players toward the end of the set, Japanese Breakfast offered a glimpse into the expanded arrangement that would later grace the stage.
Images from killiamseason.bandcamp.com and coogradio.com
Having listened to both Hozier albums prior to the show, as well as being familiar with the songs from past EPs that did not make the cut for the full-length studio releases, I was both extremely excited to see his performance but unsure of what to expect. In listening to the recorded material, the fully-explored sonic expanse made me wonder how he could possibly replicate the arrangement live. While deeply thought-provoking and poetic in evoking vivid mental imagery, I also wondered how the energy behind his lyrics would translate from the studio to a live performance. In a word: epically. Taking the stage to a booming percussive arrangement, guitar in-hand Hozier launched into the finger-picked intro of “Would That I.” As if adding a wild element in synchronicity to the natural references in the song, Hozier’s primal shrieks met with the melodic yells of the backing vocalists and the beating of the drums to curate a harshly honest journey in self-discovery. If live energy or the emulation of the studio arrangements were a true concern rather than a ponderance before the show, Hozier put them all to bed within the first minute of the first song. Fully-fleshed out, the eight-piece band’s sound created the setting around their frontman’s iconic vocals and kept the audience in the seated venue on their feet for the duration of the night.
Continuing to showcase the new material from Wasteland, Baby!, “Dinner and Diatribes” was equally as energetic and percussion-driven, but was more blues-oriented than the Irish-folk inspired “Would That I”. Again displaying something animalistic to match lustful lyrics, the loud and repetitious chorus acted as a form of release to the anticipation built in the verses. Although highlighted by Hozier’s vocals and inclination toward intricate and expansive arrangements, percussion and rhythm were the primary forces behind the music, making the audience tangibly feel the songs as the bass drum kicks reverberated through its collective body. This was made particularly clear during “Nina Cried Power” as the eight-piece band converged into one unified front to deliver a cry against absolute power. Calling for the veil to be lifted from the eyes of the masses, to recognize the deception that keeps them at odds and prevents mobilization, and to confront that which oppresses, they paid homage to the artists that spearheaded protests throughout history in hoping to draw power and strength from the spirit of civil disobedience. Lacking a guitar except for playing a riff alongside the female guitarist/violinist in the band during the instrumental breakdown, Hozier made it clear that his voice is his primary instrument. Displaying precise control and vocal dexterity, he oscillated between lower notes in the verses that grew louder to pointed criticism of the powers that be, and finally into impressive choral runs. Albeit controlled, he unleashed a strained growl that was uncharacteristic of much his catalog, but perfectly suited for the anger and urgency in the song. That sense of focus and direct purpose was also majorly contributed to by the six-part backing vocals coming from the guitarist/violinist, both keyboardists, the bassist, and both female backing vocalists that also added some percussive elements.
Image from thewesternhemisphere.org
That separation between art and artist was never more clear than it was after “Nina Cried Power.” The strong voice and commanding presence that seconds before had traversed the stage as though in search of a formidable force capable of striking fear into the heart of a seemingly omnipotent opponent morphed into a well-reserved, soft-spoken gentle giant. Exemplifying that a life lived in activism can take many forms, whether faces, voices, or statures, the lack of perceptible emotion did not mean it was not simmering beneath the surface. For given a microphone, a platform, and the lifeblood of his music, it boiled over at well-placed times during the set. Although similar, as Hozier’s own observations and thoughts spawned the music that flowed from the stage, there seemed to be an element of surprise to the message therein. A perceived distance between the soft-spoken man and scathingly critical voice on the stage, however, did not cheapen the substance by any means. No, it offered a glimpse as to what lingers inside the mind of the man behind the music that may not be otherwise indicated in his off-stage personality.
Breaking from the new record, they delved back into the debut for “To Be Alone” which featured Hozier on an oil can guitar. After starting with a crowd call and response to the high falsetto in the chorus, the reverberations of the guitar and its cutting rudimentary tones matched the eerie self-loathing present in the lyrics. Changing pace from the darkness surrounding “To Be Alone”, Hozier then went into “Someone New”, an upbeat sounding song anchored by strings and a major progression that calls into question the non-committal lifestyle of bouncing from lover to lover. Meeting a middle ground between romantic flings and being trapped in a destructive relationship, “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” saw Hozier pick up a sharply distorted hollow body electric guitar to sing to the theme of lustful devotion. The set placement of “Nobody” and “Talk” that followed could not have been more perfect as the former played to the antithesis of “Someone New”, explaining “I’ve danced real slow with Rockettes on dodgy molly | But I’ve had no love like your love.” Beginning with a deeply harmonic, yet stripped back iteration of the chorus over Hozier’s electric guitar, by the song’s end it led into “Talk”, which took the creepy vibe from the context of a relationship in “To Be Alone” to one of internally unrestrained infatuation.
Image from amazon.com
Examining love in this scope, be it something of pure lust that lacks substance, something that is not reciprocated, or something that has been lost and only rediscovered through the emptiness of meaningless debauchery, it is easy to become hardened on the idea. Discussing his own pessimism, Hozier ceded that beauty can spawn from critical, cynical places and introduced “From Eden”, inviting the crowd to sing along to his nostalgic ode to naivete. Prominently featuring the violin, this rendition received an acoustic makeover with subdued percussion, softly clanging keys, and tasteful choral vocals that backed Hozier’s own smooth signature phrasing. Keeping with the debut hits, “Work Song” was ushered in by soft, low gospel harmonies and a bass drum/hand clap rhythmic arrangement. The dream-like vocals and synthesizer bass of the verses fit the dazed recollection of a fever dream in the lyrics while the driving minor chords fit the chorus in which the protagonist expresses his love while confronting his own mortality. Inviting the crowd to sing atop the ethereal backing vocals of the band, they repeated the chorus with snaps and claps to structure the melody before fading out with the same harmonies with which the song began. In contrast to the damaged romantic bond in “Work Song”, the thick, electrified blues-meets-disco groove of “No Plan” then questioned the hesitation in love in the face of an inevitable end to the world and the finality of death. By the song’s chorus, the lover recognizes that very absurdity, suggestively revealing by the “still of [their] hand” that they understand.
Pivoting from the proposition of romance to longing for that which was lost long ago, the heartbreak in “Almost (Sweet Music)” was almost masked by the name drops and references in the song over top of a major, upbeat chord progression. Adding to the “sweet music” that could have been a long and happy relationship, along with the literal music of the referenced artists, “Almost” featured the only prolonged jam of the set. Coming after the last verse, Hozier pointed out the musicians in the band as a round-robin-type instrumental showcase broke out, highlighting the violinist, one of the keyboardists, bassist, and drummer. That improvisation carried partially into the intro of “Jackie and Wilson” where the drums and bass led off with a brief, vibe-setting funk jam. Similar to the chorus of “To Be Alone”, Hozier not only displayed gritty, powerful strums here, but also showcased his vocal range with an exceedingly high falsetto in the bridge. Returning to the blues-inspired sound that seemed to give rise to the likes of “Dinner and Diatribes”, “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” was the only other track from the Nina Cried Power EP to make an appearance during the set. Deeply suggestive, it tied the songs that would close the set together by putting the love present in “the moment’s silence when my baby puts the mouth on me” up on a pedestal as “a cure I know that soothes the soul, does so impossibly.”
Image from youtube.com
Following the lustful hyperbole of “Moment’s Silence”, came the lead single of Wasteland, Baby!. Transcending that honest compulsion for lust and the focus for which all else is lost when its goal is achieved, “Movement” more deeply explores a true, complicated love stripped back to the simplicity of physical romance. Subdued by a steady beat and ambient keys, it burst forth more gloriously than the studio recording before the final chorus when the full drums and six-part vocal harmonies dramatically entered the scene. Going back-to-back with lead singles at the end of the set, Hozier brought his musical journey to date full-circle with “Take Me to Church”. Leaving the instrumentation to the rest of the band, he lent only his voice to the arrangement on this song. The crowd matched his offering with its collective voice and coalesced with the band on stage to become one. Bringing the set to its culmination, ironically by returning to the song that spawned his massive following, Hozier then gathered the band, took a grateful bow, and left the stage. Convinced that this could not possibly be the end, I was shocked when the lights in the venue came on and the mass exodus from the crowded rows began. However, in retrospect, it made perfect sense. In addition to the reasons stated above, bringing the set and his career to a close with his chronological beginning, the theme of finality courses through the veins of Wasteland, Baby!. Whether it be on “No Plan” where it is used to justify loving without regard for tomorrow, refraining from hesitation due to the inevitability of demise or on the title track where love is used to overcome the fear of death - however demystified, the end remains the end. And this set proved Hozier to be a man of his words. Love to ease the pain of finality, finality bringing urgency to love - either way nothing lasts forever. Even reserved and soft-spoken when his music is loud and direct, Hozier is no hypocrite.
Image from reddit.com
Please enjoy “Nina Cried Power” from this set using the link below (credit to Ben Cheng):