Malahide maestro: Hozier delivers great performance – and showcases his advocacy
Last Friday evening, I joined the 25,000-odd fans congregating at Malahide Castle to see Irish singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier Byrne present a show he revealed mid-set as being the largest solo concert he has ever performed to date.
This achievement comes just shy of the 10th anniversary of the release of Hozier’s debut single, ‘Take me to Church’. TMTC is undoubtedly what people are quickest to associate with the singer, and for good reason; the song is massively successful, standing as the only Irish track to ever reach a billion streams on Spotify (in fact, it’s now surpassed two billion), and – for many people – it’s what introduced the artist and his work to them, cementing ‘Hozier’ as a household name across the world. It was the song he chose to end his main set-list with on Friday (not counting encores), marking one of the concert’s most climatic moments (among the many highlights), his voice at times getting swallowed up in the din of the crowd belting his lyrics back at him.
As the song reached its final moments, the security personnel who’d been manning the gold circle (the area closest to the stage reserved for premium ticket holders) beckoned the main crowd forward, signalling to the rest of us regular-ticket-holding plebs that we were allowed to enter for the last stretch of the show, much to our frantic delight. From our new, closer position, we had an enviable view for the two encores Hozier performed shortly after leaving the stage to the deafening applause for TMTC – ‘Nina Cried Power’ and ‘Work Song’, both of which he performed with Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell, who had already delivered a brilliant and engaging performance earlier in the evening during the opening acts’ phase.
Russell and Hozier’s rendition of ‘Work Song’ represented a change of format to the original, as it’s not usually a duet, but a song sung solo, however the outcome was a wonderfully complimentary performance from the two artists that ended the concert on a real high note (figuratively and literally speaking). The first encore, ‘Nina Cried Power’, however, was in fact written with two parts, with Russell performing the part sung by the legendary Mavis Staples on the original track.
Staples is, of course, an utterly iconic figure in both music and popular culture for her impact as a gospel and soul singer, and her work as an activist. Her legendary status in this regard is no doubt what made her such a powerful and apt addition to Hozier’s ‘Nina Cried Power’, a protest song that serves as both an homage to civil rights movements and an ode to influential musicians from over the years who used their platforms to stand up for civil liberties. The song namedrops artists like Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan (who, fun fact, once proposed to Staples in the early 1960s, but she turned the offer down), and Mavis Staples herself – and the title itself is, of course, a nod to the iconic line ‘I cried power’ in the late, great Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’. Beyond all its worthy inspiration and messaging though, it’s also just a great song, especially live, and fit brilliantly as the first encore on Friday night.
While perhaps among the more unmistakable examples of social commentary in his work, ‘Nina Cried Power’ is far from the only song of Hozier’s to be inspired, directly or indirectly, by social issues. One need only refer back to that first single to find another example; lyrically, TMTC could be read as a general condemnation of the Church’s restriction of sex, but it is in the track’s music video where the theme of the Church’s discrimination against homosexuality is made explicit – showing a gay couple being hunted and brutally attacked by a mob, as the tongue-in-cheek titular line ‘take me to Church’, and similarly morbidly-ironic choruses of “amen, amen, amen”, play on in the background.
The video came about two years before the 2015 referendum legalised same-sex marriage in Ireland, and according to Hozier himself, was prompted by the frustration he felt about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and its domination over the social and political outlook of the Irish state. Within the last decade or so, Ireland has come a long way when it comes to societal attitudes towards gay marriage, but I’m sure we all remember how much more divisive the issue was at the time of, and in the lead up to, that referendum, and as such, it was so significant that the most popular song both in the country, and to come out of the country at that point, carried the message of support that it did.
Progressive-leaning social commentary has been a common motif across Hozier’s work ever since: 2016’s ‘Cherry Wine’ is written form the perspective of a male domestic abuse survivor, 2022’s ‘Swan Upon Leda’ was a response to the Roe v Wade overturn, and most recently, there was 2023’s ‘Eat Your Young’, which critiques overconsumption, attitudes towards the poor, and generational issues – it was also the song Hozier opened with on Friday.
But Hozier’s lyrics were not the only way his penchant for advocacy carried through to the Malahide show. Speaking to the crowd between songs, he made sure to highlight that it was the last day of Pride and signal his support for the community, echoing the sentiments Russell had also shared earlier about celebrating Pride, supporting the marginalised, and the issue of the growing right in recent years – she also praised Hozier directly for his advocacy in his music, interviews, and through raising money and awareness for important causes.
At another point between songs, Hozier told the Dublin crowd, “I can’t tell you how great it is to be home” – to which the slightly-drunk-man beside me yelled back “It’s great to have ya!”… spilling a bit of his Heineken onto my arm as he did. But he wasn’t wrong; it is great for Ireland to have an artist like Hozier, one who is constantly using his platform and privilege to stand up for important issues, who is a vocal representative of a younger Irish generation, and who, in my opinion at least, simply makes great music.
He also just puts on a good show, Friday being testament to his strength as a performer; his vocals were faultless throughout and he kept the audience engaged at every point, without ever seeming like he was breaking sweat to do so. He certainly has a more laid-back approach to performing than other artists, but that fits for his music, and it works for him; I don’t think I looked away from the stage once, and I was far from the only one. In fact, I was so caught up, it wasn’t until we rushed the gold circle during TMTC that I copped the show was essentially over already, and two hours had come and gone just like that.
I’ve been an avid fan of Hozier ever since TMTC, but this was the first concert of his I was able to attend. I wish I’d gone to more earlier, especially after Friday, but at least now I know I can confidently endorse him as a performer, as well as an artist and a public figure.
Tickets go on sale this week for his 3Arena gig later this year, and I recommend to anyone interested in his music to go along – don’t be surprised if you see me there too!