Toronto Unearthed: Hozier @ Budweiser Stage

Goosebumps climbed up the arms of every person filling a sold-out Budweiser Stage as Hozier stepped out to begin the show. Nothing screams the transition from a fun-loving summer to a chilly fall season more than the slow acoustic start of Unreal Unearth, marking the beginning of a perfect set by the indie-folk songwriter and his band of 8.

The words “At last, when all of the world is asleep” wake up the crowd

The first words of “De Selby (Part 1)” reverberated around the venue, accompanied by the haunting ambience of Hozier’s simple finger-style technique. The crowd, anxious for the start of the show, jolted awake. You would expect the intense cheers and screams from a sold-out show at the Rogers Centre, but for an artist like Hozier, it feels more than justified.

As he closed the track, singing in Irish Gaelic, the band introduced themselves by adding background harmonies to a slowly intensifying ambient instrumental. The climax of the track was reached and chills had settled just in time for a seamless transition into the groove of “De Selby Part 2”. The second track of the set felt that much grander following the build-up from Part 1, setting the tone for the remainder of the show. During this transition, the stage lit up with trees dangling from the ceiling — consistent with the themes of Unreal Unearth — flashing lights, and generally a well-executed production (though nothing particularly unique beyond that). You can really tell when listening to these tracks and especially seeing them performed, how personal they are, and how much care and passion Hozier puts into his craft.

Old hits and an invested audience

From this point on, the night was filled with old hits - more than I expected. As the band pulled out tracks like “Jackie And Wilson”“From Eden”, and “Dinner & Diatribes”, the crowd, certainly filled with old fans, erupted.

Speaking of old hits, smack-dab in the middle of the set was the emotional acoustic poetry of “Cherry Wine” — a polarizing decision. While slower songs were ever present, “Cherry Wine” is famous for being particularly hard to listen to without crying one’s eyes out. Talking to those next to me, I realized that, while it was a universally touching performance, there was some disagreement as to whether or not it was appropriately placed in the setlist, especially being followed by the fun jams in the Hozier discography.

Hozier continued with a mixture of the slower tracks off Unreal Unearth and songs off older projects such as Almost (Sweet Music), ending the pre-encore setlist with the smash hit “Take Me To Church”. The crowd never lost its energy throughout these transitions in songs, owed in large part to the balance between energetic and calmer moments throughout the setlist.

Any review of a Hozier show would be incomplete without a reference to his vocal ability, its perfection is apparent from the start. Rarely, if ever, did the sound and tone of his voice differ from the studio recordings. Consistently, his baritone vocals supported by backing from his band were punchy for his anthemic choruses and smooth for the slower verses. In his more recent works, he’s started using his falsetto significantly more, making it all the more impressive to see him transition his tone so seamlessly between tracks like “Eat Your Young” and “First Time”.

Backstories, inspirations, and appreciation

Given the poetic nature of Hozier’s songwriting, it’s only natural he takes inspiration from classic literature and poetry. This remains as true as ever on Unreal Unearth, as explained by Hozier between songs. Hozier talked a bit about taking inspiration and writing from the perspective of texts such as the famous Dante’s Inferno. Coming out of this show with newfound knowledge of the inspiration behind Hozier’s newest tracks was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.

Never in my history of attending shows in the city — be it big or small acts — have I heard such an endless amount of appreciation from an artist for their crew and band members. Hozier took an extended break to introduce and thank each and every member of his supporting band. Not only that, but thanking everyone including guitar technicians, tour managers, stage managers, and the list goes on. At one point, in the middle of this appreciation interlude, he announced drummer Rory Doyle’s new status as a father and his birthday having recently passed. This elicited a huge reaction from the crowd, going as far as singing Happy Birthday together! It was something beautiful to see, how deeply Hozier feels gratitude towards his position and those who have helped him.

“I'm so full of love, I could barely eat.”

Another unexpected decision: to not save the massively popular “Take Me To Church” for the encore; instead, ending the show with a romantic send-off, “Work Song”. A song that truly encapsulates what listening to Hozier feels like — a romanticization of life and its daily going-ons that make it feel earnest despite its mundanity (see quote above). Seeing Hozier was an experience unlike any other, which I frankly was not expecting. I was looking forward to hearing some of my favourite song lyrics live, sure, but his soothing voice and grand instrumentals translated perfectly from record to performance in a way that was ultimately satisfying and left me not wanting the night to end.