The Wang Theatre in downtown Boston boasts to have one of the five largest stages in the country, with a maximum audience capacity of 3500. With reliefs and frescoes decorating the high rising ceiling, it is an elegant establishment that seems more fitting for a black-tie opera.
It was packed on Tuesday night. As the lights dimmed, the crowd suddenly dipped into stunned silence. Everyone was on their feet. When the lanky Irishman finally emerged from the darkness, the theatre erupted with fervor.
Hozier, with long dark flowing hair reminiscent of a certain religious figure, stepped into the light.
“I love you!” someone on the balcony yelled.
“Thank you,” said the 6-foot-5 singer, grinning warmly. “I can assure you that the feeling is mutual.”
During the two-hour set, Hozier performed songs from his sophomore album “Wasteland, Baby!” and some fan favorites including the single that propelled him to stardom in 2014, “Take Me To Church.” He was supported by a fabulous eight-piece band, featuring an ensemble cast hailing from the U.K, Ireland, and Nashville.
The band put its musical talents to good use; “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” saw a duet featuring Hozier on guitar and Emily Kohavi on violin. “Shrike,” a sentimental breakup ballad, featured memorable falsetto parts. Veering away from his familiar territory of acoustic finger-picking, Hozier ventured lightly into soul and blues in numbers like “Almost (Sweet Music).” He frequently referenced some iconic 20th-century jazz classics such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett in the lyrics. It was clear that they had influences on the up-and-comer’s distinct style—vibrant, but not without a dash of melancholy.
The most fascinating quality of the singer-songwriter's ballads is their implicit duality. He can be quite playful—until he’s not. “Shrike” is sweet with its soft strumming and graceful bird imagery until one realizes that the bird in question impales its prey on thorns. Bloody, brutal honesty—another quality central to the Irishman’s brand.
Hozier has not shied away from political discussions in his career; “Take Me to Church” is an impassioned decrial of abuse and homophobia in the Catholic church, and “Nina Cried Power” salutes other historic protest songs while being a powerful fight song by its own right. When Hozier introduced his brand new “Jack Boot Jump,” a “protest song” set for release in the coming months, the crowd was ignited.
“I do have some reservations about the idea of ‘protest song,’” he said. “I always thought it was a very unsubtle way to approach songwriting.” The recent violence against protesters around the world changed his mind, however, “so then I thought what is not subtle at all is being murdered for protesting.”
The name of the unreleased single is inspired by an Orwell quote, “If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.” The musical qualities of “Jack Boot Jump” reinforced its chilling namesake. The single saw the band retreating to the background, leaving only Hozier and drummer Rory Doyle in the spotlight. His electric guitar solo rang strong, loud, and true to his message.
It is a raw and grim picture of the world today—but that is okay, Hozier reminded the audience, especially since the universe is ending anyway.
“The most likely way that our universe is going to end is ‘heat death,’” the singer sounded quite serious as he quoted astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack, who believes that our world will eventually collapse in on itself. “And that’s why we really shouldn’t sweat the small things. Here’s ‘No Plan.’” Despite its seemingly disheartening message that goes something like “there’s no plan, there’s no kingdom to come,” the song actually elicits a quite freeing sentiment. He ends the song with an uplifting message: “Before the eternity of winter, we have the springtime of the universe.”
Hozier concluded the night with “Work Song”, a fast-paced and temperamental piece about love and loss. The set was briefly interrupted when someone in the pit hurled a wreath of flowers on stage. Hozier picked up the lei and put it around his neck to enthusiastic cheers from the audience, and carried on.
He was joined on stage by his opener Angie McMahon, the 26-year-old Australian singer-songwriter whose bright red bell bottoms and self-deprecating humor conquered the audience earlier in the night. McMahon was at ease, honest, and insightful. She introduced a set of touching songs that offered an intimate look at some mundane yet beautiful subjects, including heartbreak and pasta eating. Her deep, dreamy, Maggie Rogers-esque voice nicely complemented her stream-of-consciousness rhythm. McMahon also echoed Hozier’s activism, as she made sure to acknowledge the indigenous peoples before her set.
Loyal Hozier fans often joke that whenever the Irish singer is not seen in the public, he is in some misty bog landscape or mystical wooded cove “recouping his earthy aesthetic.” The impassioned fans at the Wang Theatre on Tuesday night seemed to agree that this habit had been good to the artist and his craft. After all, he is only 29 and full of energy—who knows what is going to arise from the mist next time around?