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Hozier - Empowering Poetry in Motion, Live at Merriwether Post Pavilion

The crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion has been waiting for the show to start for over an hour, but nobody seems to mind. People are talking and laughing freely, distributing water handed out by the security guards, and singing along to the pre-show playlist. A group of girls are sitting in a small circle in the pit, playing a lively, music-themed game of Heads Up, inviting the people around them to join in. 



Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the Irishman who goes simply by Hozier, took the stage in Columbia, Maryland on May 17 for the “Unreal Unearth“ tour, captivating the audience with his poetic lyricism, incredibly technical and delicate guitar skills, powerful vocals and unapologetic and eloquent anecdotes regarding the importance of political activism and protest.


Allison Russell, Canadian singer-songwriter and good friend of Hozier’s, opens the night, putting on a soulfully vulnerable but simultaneously empowering performance. The audience falls in love with Russell and her band almost instantly, spellbound by her emotional and powerful vocals, lyrically rich and moving gospel, folk-funk anthems, and her eloquently expressed thoughts. Highlights of her set are the introspective and raw ‘Eve Was Black,‘ and the cathartic ‘Demons.‘ She also uses her time onstage to talk about her experiences with childhood trauma, racism, sexism, and to advocate for a ceasefire in Gaza, met with deafening cheers and applause. The audience gives Russell and her band a standing ovation at the end of the set, making the singer smile widely and make a heart with her hands before running offstage.


Around 30 minutes later, greeted with a sea of applause and cheering, Hozier and his band come onto stage and kick off the night with the slow, partially sung in Gaelic ballad, ‘De Selby (Pt. 1,)‘ which transitions seamlessly into the high-energy ‘De Selby (Pt. 2,)‘ one of my personal favorites off his most recent album, ‘Unreal Unearth‘.


The first thing that strikes me is his larger-than-life presence, both literally and figuratively. Standing at 6’6”, Hozier’s mere stature demands attention, but more than his height contributes to his staggeringly commanding presence. As he navigates through his setlist, his powerful vocals, incredibly intense demeanor, and impressively technical guitar skills pull the audience into his world. 


Afterwards, Hozier leads the audience in a journey back into his two older albums, playing the upbeat ‘Jackie and Wilson,‘ the bluegrass-reminiscent and sultry ‘To Be Alone,‘ and the percussion and electric guitar-heavy ‘Dinner and Diatribes.‘


The contrast between performing Hozier and normal Hozier is hilariously stark. His voice and performance style is incredibly intense and emotional; he sings as if he can viscerally feel every single note and word tearing deep in his soul, as if he is physically reliving the emotions and experiences that inspired the music. But in between songs, his demeanor softens entirely. He smiles and laughs with the crowd, thanking them humbly for being there, the epitome of a truly gentle giant.


After the tragically romantic ballad ‘Francesca,‘ Hozier points out a man standing in the front wearing a shirt that says, ‘Free‘, “That was the name of one of my dad’s old bands!” Hozier explains to the audience that when he was a baby, his father was a touring musician, and the name of his band was ‘Free Booze‘ purely because if venues advertised “Free Booze tonight,” the place “...filled up with people,” he says, laughing. He thanks the man and says his dad is going to get a kick out of it.


The setlist is a near-perfectly balanced blend of songs from all three of Hozier’s albums; each one gets its proper time to shine. Standouts are the famously sultry and growl-filled ‘It Will Come Back‘ from his self-titled first album, the rebellious ode to the power of political protest ‘Nina Cried Power‘ from his second, ‘Wasteland, Baby!‘ and the harrowingly dark critique of capitalistic warfare, ‘Eat Your Young‘ from ‘Unreal Unearth.‘


One of my favorite moments of the show takes place during ‘Almost (Sweet Music),‘ a song off his second album. Before the third verse, every one of the eight members of the band take a few minutes for their own solos, and Hozier introduces them all by name and their hometowns. I love this moment, and not just because of the delightfully upbeat and lively guitar, bass, drum, and piano solos. This creative interlude gives the audience the chance to get to know the rest of the band a little bit better, and it’s wonderful to see a large musician give his incredibly talented band their due credit.


As most musicians do, Hozier saves the most famous and popular for last. ‘Too Sweet,‘ his first #1 single, is met with wild enthusiasm. His vocals are the star of the show; this song in particular allows Hozier to flex his impressive vocal range and beautifully perfect vibrato. Before the first chorus, he tells the audience, “Let me hear you!” and removes his earpiece to hear the audience sing along. He smiles widely with admiration and gratitude before finishing the song to wild applause.


‘Take Me to Church,‘ Hozier’s debut single, is a borderline religious experience, with the thousands of voices singing in unison and Hozier standing at the front of the stage with his arms raised, as if in worship. This song never fails to move me, and witnessing it live is emotionally overwhelming in a good way. Though the song is over ten years old, Hozier still performs it with such visceral intensity and emotion that the audience can’t help but be drawn to him magnetically, feeling those exact same emotions. 


Towards the end of the song, a lesbian flag and a bisexual flag are thrown onto stage; he picks them up and drapes them across his mic stand, garnering loud cheers from the audience. This is more than fitting, as ‘Take Me to Church‘ is not only a song comparing one’s lover to (and criticising) religion, it’s also a direct condemnation of Russia’s harshly anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and the music video tells the story of two male lovers. 


As the audience applauds, Hozier and his band disappear offstage for the encore. A few minutes pass, and while waiting for him to take the stage again, I suddenly hear cheering way behind me. When I turn around, I see that Hozier has somehow appeared on a makeshift stage right in front of the lawn section. How he got there so quickly and without being seen is beyond me, but it immediately strikes me that it’s wonderful that the audience in the back of the venue gets a chance to see him up close.


As he starts playing the slow, plucky intro of ‘Cherry Wine,‘ a song off his first album, the audience starts cheering. As it’s one of my personal favourites, I say to nobody in particular, “I love this one!” The girl standing with two of her friends to my left turns to me and says, “Me too! Do you want to sway with us?” So obviously, I sway with the girls I just met, listening to Hozier sing a heartbreaking and romantic ballad, while watching everyone in front of me slowly waving their lights, one of the most serene and touching scenes of the night. At the end of the song, Hozier encourages the audience to sing along and steps away from the mic, and the sound of thousands of voices overtake his. After the song ends, he thanks the audience profusely, his voice a bit scratchy from emotion.


Amidst the crowd’s cheering, Hozier walks back to the stage, hopping on casually. (Yes, he in, in fact, very tall.) He preludes ‘Nina Cried Power,‘ a song originally on his third EP featuring Mavis Staples, with an eloquent speech about the importance of political protest and activism and the vital role art and artists play in spurring political movement, advocating for women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, a ceasefire in Gaza, and a free Palestinian state, even giving a mini history lesson of how the American civil rights movement directly kickstarted the one in Ireland. What stuck out to me the most is his call for a revolution, but one of “kindness, love, and human empathy,” all of which are prominent themes in his discography.


It’s clear that an artist attracts a fanbase with similar values, as Hozier’s inspiring and passionate speech has everyone cheering and even chanting, “Free Palestine!” Seamlessly transitioning from his fiery speech into the powerful song, Hozier puts on an inspiringly and powerfully human performance, singing,“It’s not the wall, but what's behind it; Oh, the fear of fellow man, his mere assignment; And everything that we’re denied by keeping the divide; It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.


Vocalist Melissa McMillan joins Hozier in the third verse, singing, “And I could cry power; Power has been cried by those stronger than me, straight into the face that tells you to rattle your chains if you love being free,” one of the most impactful lines of the song.


‘Nina Cried Power‘ is one of my favourite Hozier songs because of its powerfully touching message, and I especially love the chorus: his pained cry of “Power!” echoed by a gospel-esque choir, along with the direct references to and some sampling from anti-war, anti-fascism, and anti-racism records by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, Patti Smith, John Lennon, James Brown, Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie never fails to move me. This song live does not disappoint; in fact, Hozier’s raw emotion, the additional powerful vocal performances from his band, and the audience’s energy only elevates the song into an immersive, beautifully human experience uniting thousands of people in a common rallying cry.  


Hozier ends the show with ‘Work Song‘ from his first album, bringing Allison Russell back onstage for the finale. Their voices sound angelic, progressing in perfect harmony and seamless motion as they sing, “When my time comes around, lay me gently in the cold, dark earth; No grave can hold my body down, I’ll crawl home to her.” 


The applause when the band plays the final note of the evening is thunderous. When Hozier walks to the front of the stage and thanks the audience with his hands over his heart, the noise intensifies so much, that I can barely hear my thoughts. And the crowd’s cheering and clapping continue long after Hozier leaves the stage. 


I have this warm feeling as I leave the venue; concerts, in general, evoke a feeling of togetherness and community, but Hozier’s powerful stance for social and political justice and the strong theme of protest and rebellion in his music leaves an impression on me, evoking a feeling of deeper purpose and unity with the thousands of people around me.  


Hozier is far more than a man who writes music. He’s an eloquent, insightful poet; he’s a stunningly gifted artist; he’s an intellectual with a gift for understanding and reimagining literary and historical masterpieces; he’s a strong and vocal advocate for human rights and peace. And that’s the only way I can describe this experience: it was far more than a concert. It was a vulnerably raw, deeply human musical and literary experience that united the entire audience.


Make sure to catch Hozier on his Unreal Unearth tour and listen to his discography here.

 


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