Hozier performs at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore on March 13, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert).
Filled seats, flashing lights, rattling rafters, and the kind of folk-soul hybrid that shakes the soul and moves the feet. This defined the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore recently as Hozier took an audience’s hearts in his hands then broke and reconstituted them.
Hozier all but conquered the world on the back of the song “Take Me to Church” (on the EP of the same name) in 2013, maintaining the takeover with the subsequent (and stellar) debut self-titled album in 2014. Songs like “Cherry Wine” and “From Eden” and “Work Song” became staples on radio stations and streaming playlists around the world, though none quite as gargantuan as “Take Me to Church,” which everyone’s mother (mine included) and child knows as closely as the grooves of their own fingertips.
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Over four and a half years since his debut, Hozier finally released Wasteland Baby! at the beginning of March, his much-anticipated follow-up. Much like the lead up to his previous album, he released an EP, Nina Cried Power, featuring that song (and first single) and three stellar tunes and subsequently toured behind these songs as well as previewing Wasteland Baby! for lucky audiences around the world long before he announced the album.
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Wasteland Baby! reached number one on the Billboard chart (overtaking Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande) after its first week, lending a celebratory air to the theater, which already hummed with excitement.
With Wasteland Baby!, Hozier continues to display his gift for fusing wrought emotion with moments of genuine joy, all with keen insight and poeticism. A blend of sounds defines the record, including bluesy, gospel elements, crashing drums, plenty of engaging handclaps, and guitars and organs that switch between soothing and exploding. Some fuzz and static plays under the edge of a few songs, sharpening the tone, but the album’s North star is Hozier’s voice — which is not to say the instruments don’t also matter just as much. The instruments augment and intensify the emotional heft of the songs. Every song builds, some to the point of a barely restrained or unrestrained crescendo.
Much like “Take Me to Church,” Hozier cultivates sensuality amidst the darkness, pairing romance with religion and mourning. There was tension in his music, nearly always.
Before the show started, a line wrapped around the Hippodrome Theatre’s city streets, 3,000 eager and diverse fans waiting to enter the venue (although the show featured assigned seats). When they all finally got inside, they made another line in front of the merch table, stretching the length of the long theater, several hundred people deep.
As I walked past them, the excitement became a physical thing, as tangible as the red and gold flourishes coloring the walls and carpets of the Hippodrome Theatre. Anticipation spiked as the lights flickered to announce the impending show, first Jade Bird (stunning, please look her up — massive voice, wicked humor) and finally Hozier. The lights cut out, the crowd roared, and out they walked. Hozier at the center, his band stationed around him -– seven others in all -– and ripped into new song, “Would That I,” which starts softly, but transforms into muscular, gospel-inflected rock.
The band slid into most recent single, “Dinner & Diatribes” and then the propulsive, political, and sound-defining “Nina Cried Power.” This song, like much of Hozier’s best work, hearkens back to an earlier time when he was the bassist in Raven and the Radicals, a deeply political band that courted controversy. Hozier is clearly no stranger to controversy — look no further than the video to “Take Me to Church” — but with “Nina Cried Power,” he denounces apathy and even pokes subtly at the online predisposition to call oneself “woke” for either engaging in internet dialogue or posting related behaviors on social media with the line, “it’s not the waking, it’s the rising.”
Hozier further decries this apathy when he sings, “it’s not the song, it’s the singing” — he asserts that the passive thing (the song) is not as important as the active thing (the singing). It is a call to action, all the more powerful in a country (Ireland) where music still contributes to action. Right after this song released to the world, Ireland held a referendum on women’s rights and voted to support women’s rights. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hozier expressed the view that the battle for equality championed by the singers he mentions — Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, Curtis Mayfield, Patti Smith (maybe LaBelle), John Lennon, B.B. King, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Mavis Staples (who guests on the recording) — is ongoing and continues to be necessary. It is a powerful song full of soul and hope, and it translated brilliantly live, with all eight members of the band providing vocal support.
Speaking of the band, they added passion and vigor to the stage, dancing around, clapping, and altogether encouraging audience participation throughout. Alex Ryan on bass and vocals, Rory Doyle on drums and vocals, Cormac Curran on organ and vocals, Jessica Berry on piano and vocals, Suzanne Santusuosso on guitar, fiddle, and vocals — along with Rachel Beauregard and Kristen Rogers on vocals too. All of them have their own music projects on the side, each with plenty of stage presence and bringing a rare element of showmanship to the entire stage.
After “Nina Cried Power,” Hozier changed the tone and rippled through “Jackie and Wilson” and “Someone New.” He then introduced “NFWMB” — short for “Nobody Fucks with My Baby” — as a love song for the end of the world, a reference he would make more than once to his songwriting for Wasteland Baby!. A menacing tone pervaded the song — appropriately, mind you — and as Hozier explained to the audience at the Hippodrome Theatre, he wrote it imagining the person next to you is completely unruffled and poised while the world is burning down. He added with a smile and a laugh that maybe that person even started the fires.
Lyrically, Hozier plays with Biblical and even Irish themes throughout, referencing Bethlehem, the rising of the dead at the end times, and the blackthorn tree (representative of darkness and strife in Irish lore). Already a stunning song between my headphones, “NFWMB” became something else altogether as it washed over the audience — an admonition of society, surely, but a promise to support a lover, always.
Next on the docket came “From Eden,” his love song from the point of view of the devil, followed by another love song for the end of the world in the title track of the new album. Hozier married the apocalyptic event of falling in love with the macroscopic event of true apocalypse; there was a view here that love is world-changing, even world-ending, but an assertion that this is not a fundamental wrong. When he sang the end of the bridge, “Not an end, but the start of all things that are left to do,” before easing into the chorus again, he drove home the point that an apocalypse, while always destructive, is not always ruinous.
From this, he moved on to yet another of his apocalyptic love songs, a slow-burning but beautiful “Shrike.” He introduced it by talking about the shrike, a carnivorous passerine commonly called the butcherbird. Small for a bird of prey, it captures insects and small vertebrates, and impales them on any available sharp points it can find (barbed wire, thorns, etc.), allowing them to devour their quarry in smaller doses, over time. He told the audience this, laughed, and said the shrike felt like a good metaphor for love.
Hozier brought the band back out completely for the rest of the main set, tearing through “To be Alone” (a plea to end rape culture) and then a run of new songs, including the explosive “Nobody” from Wasteland Baby! and the rapturous and sensual “Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)” from his Nina Cried Power EP that serves to emphasize one of Hozier’s mission statements — that physical love is an expression of the sacred. The penultimate song of the set, “Movement” was a song about dancing that isn’t exactly a dance song itself. He sang of all different kinds of movement: emotional, physical, sexual, metaphysical, within nature, within the self. The audience almost universally stood to sing along and move like willow boughs, a prelude to the set-closing “Take Me to Church.”
To call “Take Me to Church” one of the biggest songs of the decade is not an overstatement; it is approaching half-a-billion views on YouTube, 950 million listens on Spotify (of just the studio version on the album; he’s over a billion between the multiple versions available), and it became a phenomenon that has crossed barriers and generations. An indictment of religious institutions’ collective predisposition towards condemning sexuality, Hozier created an anthem for recognizing the honest and natural humanity in physical love. At the Hippodrome Theatre, it became evident how much more “Take Me to Church” is than just a song; people stood and danced in the aisle, clutching themselves and each other as Hozier invoked wanton “Amens” and carried the crowd to the verge of the orgiastic. The audience erupted, collapsing in on itself, in a moment of shared abandon.
The band waved goodbye, and a moment later, Hozier walked onstage alone. He shared that his birthday would happen soon — the following St. Patrick’s Day — and promptly discovered that multiple audience members had birthdays that very night. He led us through a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for someone named Raoul near the front seats before singing, “Cherry Wine,” a song that is both a love song and about an abusive relationship — it shows the dynamics of love and our perception of it, that we can begin to accept things we should not. It is a hard song.
The band returned smiling to the stage, beginning the slow-clap thunder of “Work Song.” Another moment of shared catharsis, its emphasis on a lover’s love getting one through the hard days, giving strength when none remains. A spiritual song in the truest sense. A spiritual performer in the truest sense.
Here are some pictures of Hozier performing at the Hippodrome Theatre on March 13, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.