TVD Live: Hozier at
the Anthem, 11/18

Monday night, freezing rain, and there’s a queue outside the Anthem that stretches all the way to the rideshare drop-off loop. It’s a motley group, ranging from teen- to middle-aged and representing eclectic social and sartorial demographics. There’s as much flannel as there is glitter. The line lurches along until everyone is swept inside with a wave of a security guard’s magic wand. The auditorium is a dark high-ceilinged dome, vaguely churchlike. It makes sense—an assignation in the House of God made Hozier famous in the first place.

But the people packed into the Anthem didn’t just come to hear “Take Me to Church.” They listen attentively to opening act Angie McMahon, an Australian singer-songwriter whose waifish appearance and guttural vocals are somehow reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith at the same time. (She’s fantastic, by the way. Folks who skipped her missed out.)

When the main attraction makes his way onstage, the audience worships him, loves every song, knows all the words. It’s not just music; it’s more like a religious experience, complete with gospel choirs and rays of celestial light. There’s something hagiographic about Hozier—a gangly bearded Irishman with the voice of a soul singer and the sublimely morbid sensibility of a Romantic poet. He seems like he’d be equally at home in an Irish bog or a boneyard in Baton Rouge, crooning to a lover or howling at the moon.

But as normal indoor concerts go, this one is thoughtful, absorbing, and impeccably produced. What’s most impressive is the cohesive artistic vision: intricate lighting cues are in constant conversation with the music, while the projections fluently transform from live feed to animation to news reels and abstract film, all designed to heighten the mood.

A few animated sequences have the half-baked quality of Y2K screensavers, but for the most part they’re aesthetically effective and occasionally they’re brilliant. Particularly memorable is the series of uncanny early cartoons which accompany “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Sea.” It’s darkly funny, delightfully offbeat, and a well-timed tonal shift from the softly masochistic melodrama of songs like “Shrike” and “Movement.”

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Between bleak asides about the rising tide of fascism and the imminent heat death of the universe are surprisingly joyous musical moments. (Not that these are apolitical—far from it.) The irresistible jam “Jackie and Wilson” and a lively cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Just Enough for the City” get everybody dancing, while “Nina Cried Power” is deliciously bombastic even without Mavis Staples throwing her vocal weight around.

This is largely thanks to Hozier’s formidable ensemble, who hail from Ireland, Nashville, and DC itself. They sing, play strings and keyboards and percussion, and seem to be having the time of their lives. None of the performers ever feel extraneous, and the show is tastefully stage-managed to feature and flatter not only the frontman but everybody else onstage. Hozier himself has the class to acknowledge everyone from the lighting designer to the deck crew—people who rarely see their names in lights but without whom a production of this caliber could never come to fruition.

This is not to say it’s perfect. A few of the visual effects misfire and one or two ballads lag, but the bigger problem is that despite the debt Hozier owes to black artists like Mavis, Nina, Stevie, and Jackie, his entourage is overwhelmingly white. There could be any number of reasons for that and there may be people of color working out of the spotlight, but still: the optics aren’t great, especially since the production does explicitly celebrate other marginalized communities.

Hozier is an unabashed LGBTQ+ champion, draping Pride flags borrowed from the audience on the mic stand and the drumkit during “Take Me to Church” and the associated film, which sharply criticizes discrimination against same-sex couples. It’s encouraging to see a musician foreground activism like this, but it does seem odd that an artistic project so indebted to the Civil Rights movement should have a blind spot where color is concerned. It’s a false note in an otherwise impressive production.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening is when Hozier asks the audience—in good faith—to put their phones away and promise they won’t post what he’s about to perform online. This crowd would do anything he asked and they readily comply, the ubiquitous rectangular iPhone lights disappearing into pockets for the first time all night. It’s an intimate moment, everyone taking to heart his request to “just be present” while he plays some new stuff that hasn’t hit the racks or the internet yet, which is written in the key of “Fuck fascism” and “Fuck being subtle” about it. “Thank you, Irish Jesus,” the endearingly tone-deaf woman behind me says, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

In good faith, I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, Hozier knows how to put on a show, and if this tour is any indication there will be plenty more to look forward to.

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