Andrew-Hozier Byrne is a 24-year-old songwriter and musician from Ireland with one full-length album in his catalog, a record that was released worldwide five months ago.
Yet, Hozier (his work name) has already played “Saturday Night Live” and registered a prime-time performance earlier this month on the Grammy Awards show, a duet with Annie Lennox, no less. And he’s selling out shows around the United States, including Monday’s performance at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.
His seemingly spontaneous popularity was ignited by the single “Take Me To Church,” the title track to an EP released in 2013. It's a riptide of gospel, folk and soul that went viral, thanks in part to a provocative video that confronts homophobia in Russia (though the lyrics are more ambiguous than the video’s narrative).
Monday night, he played the “Hozier” album in its entirety because when you’re a headliner with only one full-length in your catalog that’s what you do. He also added a few covers so he could fill a 90-minute set. One of those was “Illinois Blues,” a Skip James song that Hozier performed convincingly, solo-acoustic.
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Hozier has an expressive souful voice, one that can break cleanly into a clean falsetto.
He also has an impressive mane of shoulder-length raven hair and a soft brogue, which probably have as much to do with the predominance of females in the crowd as his considerable vocal skills and his ballads about love and romance.
His band comprised a cellist, a keyboard player, a drummer, a bassist and two backup singers. Several times all six joined him vocally, generating the sound of a gospel choir, as in “Like Real People Do,” a crowd favorite, and “To Be Alone,” one of the show’s most impressive performances.
The duet with band mate Alanna Henderson on “In A Week” was another highlight. They sang together, in perfect harmonies, as Hozier strummed guitar. At one point, they sang a few bars cappella.
That song stilled the big crowd, even those in the back of the room who were inclined to talk during songs they didn’t like or recognize. Some of that ennui was due to Hozier’s material, song like “Arsonist’s Lullabye,” which failed to sustain the mood.
Most of Hozier’s songs have an immediate but generic appeal: lots of smooth surfaces and no sharp corners. A few recalled the sounds of Los Lonely Boys: clean-shaven soul-blues. Romance and religion are recurring themes
“One Thing,” an encore, stood out from some of the others, thanks to its off-kilter rhythm and slightly frenzied percussion. “Work Song,” the closer, took a slight left turn, too, thanks to the outbreak of handclaps and, again, Hozier’s falsetto.
But by far, “Take Me To Church” was the favorite. The sing-along was feverish and evangelical, and it would have been louder if some of the dozens or so who were recording it on their phones had joined in, too.
Hozier is a dynamic live performer with plenty of musical skills, but anyone who generates so much momentum so quickly faces a challenge: How do you sustain it? Does he have another song like that in the chamber, one that can generate 80 million streams on Spotify and 40 million hits on YouTube?
Time is on his side, but the clock ticks swiftly in the music world these days.
Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene; From Eden; Jackie and Wilson; Someone New; Sedated; It Will Come Back; In A Week; Illinois Blues; Like Real People Do; Arsonist’s Lullabye; To Be Alone; Foreigner’s God; Take Me To Church. Encore: Cherry Wine; Run; One Thing; Work Song.