Hozier at the Phoenix

Irish singer/songwriter belts the blues despite minor sound snafus

HOZIER at the Phoenix, Wednesday, October 28.

“I guess we’ll play a couple more,” said Irish singer/songwriter Hozier, brought back onstage for an encore at 10:31 pm – an hour after he’d first appeared – by the piercing screams of a fairly tipsy, mostly female, completely swooning audience. And pulling off his hair elastic to let out his long locks, he broke into a cover of mid-00s R&B singer Amerie’s 1 Thing – which works surprisingly well with cello in the mix.

It was the biggest departure from the artist’s blues/soul/gospel/folk tunes, but emblematic of his ability to run with any genre. He’s got the clear-as-bell pipes to pull off a modern pop-R&B tune like that one, but the fact is that classic rhythm & blues is in his bones from lifelong osmosis through his musician father and musical upbringing.

Earlier, as he moved through his one-hour set which consisted mostly of the songs on his debut, self-titled album, the artist looked and sounded most comfortable in the purest blues songs. On a cover of Skip James’s Illinois Blues, his swelling alto was even fuller and more robust than usual – despite this being one of the many songs where his mic was cranked too high – and he looked more relaxed than usual plucking away on one of his several guitars (seriously, he almost had one for each tune).

Not that he wasn’t delightful for softer, folkier tunes – such as his sweetly harmonized duet In A Week with Alana Henderson on vocals, who otherwise played cello – it’s just that from the bluesy riff of To Be Alone to the low-singing and drum-stomping of It Will Come Back, Hozier came alive most when playing music inspired by the American South.

After an intimate acoustic interlude, he brought back his four person band and two backup singers for album highlight Work Song, which got a full and rich treatment with most of the band on spiritual backup vocals and the audience contributing handclaps.

It would have been nice to see a little more variation on his album songs – the band was pretty straightforward and not overly memorable – and Hozier fiddled with his earpiece all night, seemingly bothered my some level or another. But he delivered the hits (including his smash single Take Me To Church right before the encore) and displayed a genuine humble gratitude toward Toronto and the audience. Not as magical as his tiny Rivoli show last spring – but that would have been a nearly impossible feat.

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