His audience clearly wanted to hear “Take Me to Church” more than anything else, but Irish indie star Hozier received much love from fans throughout his entire performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night.
The lanky singer and guitarist tore through a nearly two-hour set divided about evenly between songs from his eponymous 2016 debut and songs from the 2018 sophomore album he’s currently promoting: “Wasteland, Baby!”
Following an opening acoustic set from Madison Ryann Ward that was cut short by a false start due to out-of-tune guitar strings, Hozier’s set kicked off with a dark and mysterious tone. As the frontman fingerpicked the droning, hypnotic acoustic guitar lines that began show opener “As it Was,” he stood seemingly alone, silhouetted in the middle of the darkened stage with a menacing red spotlight shining on him. As he sang the final, titular words of the first verse, the rest of his eight-piece band joined him and appeared before the audience as the stage lit up. The crowd erupted with short but passionate cheers and quickly quieted down so the signer could continue playing the haunting number to its full effect.
This subdued opener left the audience primed for an energy surge come song two, and that’s exactly what the crowd received with “Dinner and Diatribes.” Launching off with the steady, pounding backbeat of drummer and fellow Irishman Rory Doyle, Hozier, now with an electric guitar, laid down what would be the first of many catchy riffs that night. Hozier’s soulful voice was loudest in the sound mix and by far the show stealer, pitch-perfect whether he sang in a restrained manner as on “As it Was,” or belted out soaring phrases on songs like “Dinner and Diatribes,” “Nobody,” and the tribute to protest music, “Nina Cried Power.”
While not a guitar virtuoso like recent Bowl performer Gary Clark Jr., Hozier’s less-is-more approach to the instrument sounded both tasteful and powerful. The audience erupting into cheers during his introductory guitar riffs was a common occurrence throughout the concert, from the delicate opening lines of “From Eden” to the upbeat riff of “Almost (Sweet Music).” The latter song featured short solos from keyboard player Cormac Curran, bass player Alex Ryan, keyboardist Thandi, and violinist Emily Kohavi.
After opening with three songs from his new album, Hozier greeted the audience and dusted off the debut album track “To Be Alone,” leading the audience in an “O-oh-o-oh” sing along over the song’s bluesy guitar riff. The singer continued with effortless renditions of the gospel-tinged “Angel of Small Death in the Codeine Scene,” during which he played a tasty, distorted guitar solo, and “Someone New,” which really got the fans in the pit moving along with its soulful melody.
About halfway through the show, the band, save Hozier and Mr. Doyle, deserted the stage. Amidst screams of admiration from the audience, the singer announced that he and his drummer were going to play a brand new song that he hasn’t yet recorded. To keep it a surprise for fans who haven’t heard it yet, the singer made a request of his fans.
“I would ask you in good faith if you can avoid filming this, if you can put the phones away for a bit. … And suffer being present, I suppose,” he said.
Called “Jack Boot Jump,” the new tune again showcased Hozier’s immense talent for writing catchy riffs, this one with a bouncy energy referenced its song’s title. As the singer sang about political unrest in places like Hong Kong, his spiraling guitar lines locked in perfectly with Mr. Doyle’s backbeat and produced a jagged but full sound. The band then returned for a rendition of the tender “From Eden,” during which fans swayed with its romantic melody, hands held high.
The song that received the evening’s biggest audience reaction probably goes without saying. After singing the opening lines of the hit single that rocketed him to fame, “Take Me to Church,” Hozier pointed his microphone to the audience and let them take it away. The crowd new every word. As he belted out the song’s massive chorus, the signer strutted about the stage beating his chest and at one point even got down within the front row’s reach, shaking some fans’ hands and letting them touch him. As the band brought the main set closer to an explosive ending, the whole crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. While some audience members left after hearing the big song of the evening, many stayed wanting more.
After some roadies fiddled about with the stage setup in the dark, the band returned to instruments decked out in ivy vines. This change set the romantic tone for the beautiful acoustic ballad “Cherry Wine,” its light atmosphere the flipside of that seen during the opening “As it Was.” Though the closing “Work Song” wasn’t nearly as memorable a tune as the first encore, it brought the show to a close with a subdued mood similar to that with which it had started, making the concert feel like a holistic experience that had come full circle.