It was Halloween Eve in St Kilda, and the foreshore suburb was a buzz with ghouls and ghosts lined up under the fang-toothed facade of Luna Park. Outside the Palais Theatre another group has forming, and the powerhouse vocals of British up-and-comer RHODES welcomed them into the auditorium.
He received screams worthy of a One Direction concert in-between his original setlist, and if it wasn’t for his genuinely breathtaking vocal abilities, you’d put it down to the floppy blonde hair. Armed with only a hollow-bodied Gretsch and pedalboard, the sound was surprisingly loud.
Having already supported the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Laura Marling in the UK, RHODES’s professionalism was obvious. He played songs from his new album Wishes, with the single ‘Breathe’ being the finale stand-out, and he threw his head back with every husky bellow of “oh, c’mon”.
As the interval end drew nearer, the room began to finally look sold-out. The lights dimmed and the crowd of predominately women lost it. A band emerged and amongst them the man of the moment, Hozier, starting the first of his two-night stint at The Palais. Looking appropriately hipster in a black-and-red check flannelette shirt, skinny jeans and man bun, the leggy Irishman strapped on a guitar and launched into a smouldering rendition of ‘Like Real People Do’, off last year’s breakout self-titled debut album.
Silhouettes against his name writ large on a curtain, gospel humming from the backing band signalled the introduction to ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’. The strident strums of ‘From Eden’ came quickly after, complementing the 25 year-old’s pitch-perfect hollering “babe, there’s something tragic about you, something so magic about you, don’t you agree?”. Yes, we certainly did.
Live, Hozier’s music has a much stronger Celtic flavour, and there was barely a hint of pop in sight despite the success of THAT song. His 6-piece band were impressively prominent in every song, and flanked by four females (two singers, cellist Alana Henderson and keyboardist) a drummer and a bassist, Hozier completed the line-up rather than overshadowed it. Fans swooned as he sung “it feels good, girl it feels good, oh to be alone with you”, (an antidote to the “anthems of rape culture” that is modern pop music) before easing into a slinky cover of ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles.
It became obvious early on that Hozier has more guitars than I’ve had hot dinners. From Gretsch to Gibson, Boho cigar box to ringy Epiphone and Harmony, each song swap brought some seriously growling grit, and his skills on them were even more impressive. But however blistering the song, Hozier himself seemed humble – even a little overwhelmed – by his popularity. When a cluster at the back whooped at the mention of his hometown, he replied with “oh, we’ve got some geography enthusiasts in tonight!”.
He introduced his backing singer Karen Cowley and the pair sung the haunting duet ‘In a Week’ alone together on stage under a stunning ray of rainbow spotlights. The song, he explained, was inspired by an area near his hometown of Bray and “anytime you hear Wicklow Hills, it’s usually before or after the words ‘a body was found’”. Despite the gory details of the lyrics (“after the insects have made their claim, after the foxes have known our taste”), Cowley and Hozier’s voices came together in goosebump-inducing harmony.
Visually, it was one of the most beautiful stage setups I’ve seen too. Candle-like bulbs were propped up on the lip of the stage, emitting halo lights, whilst the band lit up under a revolving sea of coloured streaks transitioning in stunning formation to the beat of every song.
TV ad favourite ‘Someone New’ whipped the crowd into a sing-a-long frenzy, before abruptly turning into the hit we were all waiting for (but not solely there for), ‘Take Me To Church’. Slightly slower than the album version, Hozier’s powerful deep register grunted and grooved over the verses before the chorus erupted, and by that stage,“good god, let me give you my life!” was our demand.
Hozier came back acoustic for the encore to do a quiet, solo rendition of the sweet ballad ‘Cherry Wine’, an Ariana Grande cover “just for funsies” and ended on the church-y anthem ‘Work Song’, leaving us lingering on the moving refrain “when, my, time comes around, lay me gently in the cold dark earth, no grave can hold my body down, I’ll crawl home to her.”
His versatility – not just as a singer, but as a musician – was evident from song to song, as he went from anthem to ballad and back again. Genre wise, it was an effortless seesawing between blues, gospel, rock and Celtic, and his worldwide appeal was even more obvious live. Hozier proved that he is a young artist here to stay, and to paraphrase his own hit: if the heavens ever did speak, he’s the last true mouthpiece…