Hozier at the Rivoli, Saturday May 17

Irish bluesman brings gospel sounds and irreverent stories to sold-out show

HOZIER at the Rivoli, Saturday May 17 Rating: NNNNN

There are those artists that you can “discover” live, without having heard any of their songs prior, such is the strength of their music. You usually leave feeling pretty pleased with yourself. And then there are those artists who, after seeing them perform for the first time, make you incredibly annoyed with yourself. Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the Irish singer/songwriter who goes by the mononym Hozier, is one of the latter. I’ve been sleeping on him too long (and you probably have been, too).

On Saturday, he played four separate guitars and employed a four-person backing band to achieve his blues/soul/folk sound. The sold-out crowd (many of them Irish) hooted and hollered in approval for each of the songs on both of his four-song EPs, but stood in rapture for anything new or experimental as well. (The girl to my right spent the show in her boyfriend’s arms, the furrowed look on her face that kind of ecstasy that is almost anguish – like she was witnessing a litter of puppies being saved from a flood.)

There are many celebrated Irish singer/songwriters. And while Hozier absolutely nails the storytelling lyricism we’ve come to expect from his countrymen and women, his sonic influences are from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta. The dynamic is irresistible: his words are irreverent and sometimes blasphemous, but otherwise, his music would sound right at home in church.

Mid-set, he performed a few stripped-down songs solo. Pure blues tune To Be Alone – perfect guitar plucking, perfect reverb on the mic, perfect dramatic lighting – and quiet folky heartbreaker Cherry Wine were highlights.

But those songs where he flaunted his gospel and choral chops with the full band were the most impressive. Take Work Song, which sounded almost like a spiritual with its low, wounded harmonies – difficult territory to navigate for a white solo artist. But with his two female backing singers (including Alana Henderson, a successful Irish artist in her own right), additional harmonizing from the two male band members, and dramatic handclaps all around, it was perfect.

Throughout, Hozier’s voice was rich, cool and pure, and the Rivoli’s sound flawless. Henderson’s cello playing elevated every tune she played on (I’m convinced now that every band needs a cellist).

Hozier’s banter was warm and funny, he seemed genuinely chuffed that the audience knew every word to his songs, and cracked up a number of times when fans would yell out something witty or adoring. He was genuinely bummed to leave the stage, he said, but promised a new album in the summer, and a trip back very, very soon.

julial@nowtoronto.com | @julialeconte

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