A pleasantly re-arranged and free flowing Spark Arena hosted Hozier and his opening act Hollie Smith on Sunday night. The space had been essentially halved, the stage moved forward to create an intimate setting for the evening. Intimate and free-flowing is a great way to describe Hozier’s show.
Local act Hollie Smith warmed up the crowd with her soulful vocals. Sporting ripped jeans and meshed shirt under a kaftan, paired with pink heeled boots and her hair half-up in a topknot, Smith presented a mashing of styles that shouldn’t work but very much did. It was boho and laidback, a look belied by her powerful voice. Smith ran through a short set, primarily of covers – including ‘Shake it Off’ and ‘Cry Me a River’, demonstrating her strong vibrato and well-bodied lower tone. The crowd loved her high, rasping belts erupting into cheers and screams whenever she went for those notes.
She was the epitome of a soul singer, with touches of R&B and blues throughout her set. Supported by Marika Hodgson on bass/guitar, Smith walked the crowd through a set that was really designed as a playing ground for her to show off her voice. Whilst her voice is very impressive and a great jazz performance to listen to, Smith has a tendency to mince her notes. With nearly every syllable full of runs, Smith revels in lingering around the areas her voice shines in. Efforts to balance between the tempo of a song and the flexing of her range would be nice to see, with Smith’s shining moments coming when she strikes that equilibrium. Smith ended with a touching address to the audience about the terror and the beauty we’ve experienced in the past few months in New Zealand, asking the audience to remember “We’re already fighting a battle with our planet. We can’t be killing each other. Call out shit when you see it.”
When Hozier and his supporting band arrive on stage, they set off with a resounding drum beat, leaping into their opening song ‘Would That I’. The quality of Hozier’s live vocals are solidified as he effortlessly soars between crystalline falsetto and rich baritone. Dressed plainly in over-shirt and jeans, Hozier nonetheless cuts a formidable figure – not difficult to do at 6’5’’. Seguing into ‘Dinner & Diatribes’ Hozier’s fingers casually fly over the neck of his guitar, as he bobs up and down intermittently to the driving beat. His voice fills the arena – and sounds exactly the same live, if not better.
The audience all around rise up off their feet, dancing and clapping, as Hozier moves into an appropriately powerful rendition of ‘Nina Cried Power’. His tone is clear and striking. Hozier possesses a practiced air as he walks about the stage, together with his supporting band as a cohesive unit. There are moments, the best moments, where he clearly takes pure joy in the music, beating his chest in time to the drums and flashing a smile in-between words.
Hozier’s words, his poetry, are part of what makes him such a brilliant lyrical musician and artist. His little asides to the audience are great insights into the mind behind the music, as Hozier leads into ‘Shrike’ with a little explanation about the bird – “a marvellous thing to behold, but as gruesome as you can imagine” and how he “thought that was rather a fun theme for a love song.” This exploration of the dichotomy between love and pain pervades Wasteland, Baby! – his second album and touring title. The humour of his intro is sharply contrasted by the song itself, as ‘Shrike’ ends up being one of the most emotional of the night. With an intermittent clattering of percussion against Hozier plucking the strings, this very folksy tune calls to mind those rolling Irish hills. Hozier’s transitions between head and chest voice are incredibly smooth as he almost purrs into the microphone.
For the titular ‘Wasteland, Baby!’, Hozier continues to examine those complex dynamics of emotion in a love song he says that is written for the apocalypse. He is left on stage, backed up only by Cormac Curran on keys. Spotlighted in the darkness, Hozier stands as a solitary figure against the endless stretch of eternity. His intimate low crooning is accompanied by the faint tinkling of synth keys in the background. As the synth fades, the arena feels silent, spellbound. It’s just Hozier and his guitar against the end of the world.
Whilst these moments where Hozier performs predominantly solo on stage have great power to them, his ensemble throughout the night add so much joy and connection to the stage. I couldn’t help be charmed by the fact that Hozier would take care to thank his band members by name in-between songs after they did something brilliant onstage. The crowd loved these interactions too, going mad when Suzanne Santo in a black dress, with a big black hat and a violin facing off against Hozier’s guitar solo in ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’. They cheered as the whole band gathered around Rory Doyle for his epic drum solo in ‘Nobody’ and laughed as Alex Ryan climbed up and reached over to plop his hat on Doyle’s head.
Those grins that Hozier takes whenever he snatches a breath are constant throughout his performance. This is clearly enjoyable. He is undoubtedly a guy who loves music and loves getting to be part of it, to play alongside the rest of his bandmates and watch them as they rock out. Every member of the band gets recognition throughout the show, including Kristen Rogers and Thandii on percussion, keys and vocals, and Rachel Beauregard on backing vocals and percussion. It is well deserved. Hozier’s music comes alive on stage. It is heartier. The bluesy ‘Moments’ Silence (Common Tongue)’ evolves into a free-wheeling Devil Goes Down to Georgia ride, and ‘Take Me To Church’ the song that catapulted Hozier into the limelight feels grander and wilder, with the backing vocals really working to create an atmosphere of dark gospel.
We are often lucky in New Zealand to experience the last stop on a worldwide tour. The acts are obviously tired, but buoyed, wildly exhilarated and emotional now that their big rollercoaster ride is coming to an end. The same was true for Hozier, but never have I seen such a semblance of family up there on a performer’s stage. Every musician and performer we see has a whole team behind them. Some acts do take care to note a few of the big names on stage and thank them, but not to the extent that Hozier does – to the point where you know that each person up there is as intimately connected to this performance as the big-name star himself.
Before they closed out the night with ‘Work Song’, Hozier thanked and named each and every one of his bandmates, his roadies, and his production team – including their production assistant Bianca who came on stage to deliver a tipple of whiskey to Hozier and the band. Hozier broke out into an impromptu and lovely chorus of the folk-song ‘Humours of Whiskey’ to toast the last night of their photographer Christian Tierney.
This simple thanks is something that Hozier has repeated at every one of his concerts. A simple, but gracious moment that speaks a great deal about the character behind that soulful voice and those delicate lyrics. The concert ends with a soft harmonious humming, Hozier’s thanks, and a promise to see us soon.