Hozier's Twin Cities Debut Was Soulful, But Rigid

with Ásgeir
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Friday, February 20, 2015

Hozier's show this past weekend sold out before his debut self-titled album even dropped. Five months ago, his ubiquitous single "Take Me to Church" rose from Current chart darling to Fury/Beats spokestheme to LGBT rallying cry to most played song on your mom's barre playlist in a matter of weeks. Many have already pegged the 24-year-old Irish crooner as a music industry stayer rather than a passing fancy.

The Grammy-nominated singer's ticket sales are assuring, but it's still undecided whether Hozier is trending more toward Lorde or Gotye. The rookie's first trip to the Twin Cities seems to suggest the latter.

See also:
Slideshow: Hozier Rocks First Avenue


When Hozier took the stage, he was soft-spoken and humble. Through the din of admiration and anticipation, he quietly jumped into his lead song, the Mumford-esque "Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene." Hozier is a gargantuan human -- he's got a Zdeno Chara build and a cathedral in his chest to match. From the balcony at First Ave, I'm nearly eye-level with the soulful Irish nephilim. But the first song croaks out at barely a whisper. It's a betrayal to his statuesque build, but ironically fitting, considering the rest of Hozier's set was carved from marble.

The atmosphere in First Ave following Ásgeir's opening set was piqued. Every twitch of the curtain, every roadie coughing into the mic was met with a larger ovation than most headliners get in their encore. The house was ready to be taken to church.

Hozier's band is huge -- seven musicians take the stage alongside Hozier, including two girls in leather dresses whose only job seems to be clapping along. The sounds are big, but the singer is frequently swallowed by his company. Halfway through the second song, "Take Me to Church"'s followup flop "From Eden," Hozier is wooden behind the mic. He still captures the soulfulness of his 2014 album, but it's all too earnest, and juxtaposed with his keyboardist, who dances like she's barefoot and the stage is a January radiator, Hozier looks bored with his gospel.

The third song in, the band launches into "Jackie and Wilson," Hozier's best shot at escaping the tarpit of one-hit wonderdom. The song itself is fun -- like a Train jaunt with John Mayer on rhythm guitar. It's the type of song that can get a living room full of Forbes-reading supply siders dancing on the furniture, but translated into the live show at First Ave, it's ersatz. A needle to the balloon of a five-month wait. Everyone around me checks Instagram instead of singing along.

The set continues thusly, robotic chord progression after robotic chord progression. Stage banter is at a minimum, and it's painfully shy. At one point, I stop and Google Hozier's actual height (6'5"), which hardly seems possible anymore. The man who stepped out onto the stage as a mountainous Van Morrison had, by the middle of the set, disappeared into the room.

It's understandable that Hozier was so stiff. On his first American tour, the still-blossoming Millennial is playing to packed house after packed house. He's a work in progress on the stage. Still, there's none of the Pentecostal fire that he showed on the Grammys stage with Annie Lennox. Every song plays clean, with studio-quality vocals, but even Hozier's Skip James cover sounds like a CD rip from Hozier.

The set ends with the payoff we'd all expected -- with a chorale of Amens and the clanging downturn of church bells, Hozier slogs through "Take Me to Church" with a fatigue we've all since learned from the radio. Removed from the context of its looping presence on both television and the radio, "Take Me to Church" is a total stunner. It's raw with sexual energy and has one of the most truly cathartic choruses to be belted in midday traffic since Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage." It should burn. But what should've been a moment of filth and exalt is banal and obligatory. It's rushed through without any revelry from the performer or his audience.

In the time between the main set and the encore, the crowd diagnoses aloud. "He looked so nervous," a woman to my left offers when she sees me taking notes. The air is thick with confusion. Text messages are sent across the venue with strings of question marks. What could Hozier possibly encore with now that he's played through all his material?

The applause still rings when Hozier brings the band back onstage. With some thank yous, he gets right into "Cherry Wine," which incites the few diehards in the crowd. It's a standard-issue ballad with some sweet flourishes, but it's performed with the same lack of gusto. Then, everything changes.

As the coat check line bloats with people trying to beat the crowd for a cab, Hozier strikes a familiar note. Heads cock like a dog who hears the mailman approaching. With a smirk and a hat-tip to his host city, Hozier and his band funk it up with a cover of "Jungle Love." People flee back to the stage from the coat check, finally feeling some energy from the stage. It's a blast, and Hozier smiles at the reaction.

From there, he keeps the good will going, taking a turn on Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea's "Problem" with a brogue-slicked self-awareness that gets the floor dancing for the first time. Hozier is reveling in it. He's moving away from the mic to gesture at the front row. He's swinging his lanky limbs loose from the tension and laughing at bandmates. It nearly erases the previous hour. Nearly.

It's still up to fate as to whether or not Hozier sticks. The limelight doesn't have tolerance for people who only impress in spurts. It's conceivable that, the next time Hozier plays Minneapolis/St. Paul, he'll be burning down the Xcel Energy Center or stirring a University of Minnesota spring concert into drunken fits. However, judging from his debut at First Ave, Hozier's skeptics have so far been justified.

Critic's bias: I find it impossible to have a strong opinion about Hozier in either the negative or positive end of the spectrum, but I was really hoping to walk into First Ave and be floored by the big Irishman's passionate crooning. Hozier is legitimately talented, and the music industry is despairingly devoid of musicians of his caliber, so I want him to be successful, but I can't see that happening with banal performances like this.

The Crowd: A blend of Ed Sheeran-loving tweens and fortysomethings. Both spheres were pretty under-enthused considering the nature of the sellout. There wasn't so much as a lighter salute or gospel hands until the encore.

Overheard in the Crowd: A wiry-haired Zumba mom shushed the entire balcony during "Cherry Wine." Absolutely no one took her seriously. Another woman in front of me kisses her boyfriend so loudly on the ear that I hear it through the futile shushing from 15 feet away.

The Setlist

Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene
From Eden
Jackie and Wilson
Someone New
It Will Come Back
In a Week
Illinois Blues (Skip James cover)
Like Real People Do
Arsonist's Lullabye
To Be Alone
Foreigner's God
Take Me to Church

Cherry Wine
Jungle Love (Morris Day and the Time cover)
Problem (Ariana Grande cover)
Work Song


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