Hozier at Hammerstein Ballroom, New York review: Rapturous ovation for Bray wanderer on first of five sell-out shows

Hozier Photo: Reuters

Barry Egan

Bono said recently that when he first heard Hozier's Take Me To Church he pulled the car over and lay down on the road, waiting to die because the song was that good, and he hadn't written it.

At 11pm last night, the same song elicited a long, rapturous ovation that rattled the walls of Hammerstein Ballroom.

Take Me To Church was transfixing stuff. But it wasn't even the finest song of the show — the first of Hozier's five sold-out nights at the 3,500 seater venue on West 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan.

Cut to two hours earlier when Hozier came onstage like a returning king to As It Was and then Dinner and Diatribes, both from the great Wasteland, Baby! album, and then, Nina Cried Power.

The self-described gangly introvert explored the emotional and philosophical complexities of the human condition as surely as Bono does.

Part of the joy of Hozier is that he is unpredictable onstage — because you are never quite sure where he is going with a song, which is as it should be. (That's why Hozier's current album Wasteland, Baby! — while clearly having its precedents like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Van'’s Astral Weeks and others — stands out as a milestone in its own right, and certainly as one of the albums of the last few years. Because it is never by rote what he does.)

You can pull apart Hozier's lyrical themes with a Freudian zeal but he has an unquestionable artistry with words and images, and with songcraft, and stagecraft.

"How are you doing this evening New York City?" he asked at the start of the night.

"Come to me," Hozier went on.

"I just want to see what health you are in. Have you been eating your vegetables? I care for you. This is a test and we have no choice but to keep going."

Doing just that, Hozier then performed the uber-Delta Blues of To Be Alone and all the crowd sang along passionately;

'Never feel too good in crowds

With folks around, when they're playing

The anthems of rape culture loud

Crude and proud creatures baying

All I've ever done is hide

From our times when you're near me

Honey, when you kill the lights, and kiss my eyes

I feel like a person for a moment of my life.’

This was followed just as passionately with Someone New (what's not to love about that song?) and then the clappy uptempo gospel groove of Angel of Small Death & the Codeine Scene, Nobody and Talk.

Clad in denim jacket with T-shirt and jeans, Hozier talked about protest songs and student led protests in Moscow and Hong Kong and Woody Guthrie. Holding proudly his guitar he quoted Guthrie's famous line: "This guitar kills fascists." He was then straight into new song Jackboot Jump.

We need your consent to load this Social Media content. We use a number of different Social Media outlets to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity.

On this, Hozier took it up a notch when he sang: ‘The jackboot only jumps down on people standing up, so you know good things are happening when the jackboot needs to jump.’

As someone commented on You Tube upon hearing the song: "Johnny Cash is looking down from the heavens in intense appreciation." You can add George Orwell, author of one of Hozier's favourite books, 1984 (which contains the line: ‘If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever') to that list of intense appreciation.

Soon thereafter, he performed Love Of (Maybe) and Eden, followed by the slow-tempo beauty of Shrike, laconic and lovely. The Jimi Hendrix riff-led journey into the cosmic unknown that was No Plan came after.

"This next song is directly inspired by astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack,” Hozier explained, "and the ways the planet might go; the most likely is heat death. Stars die. Matter decays." He then sang: "Why would you make out of words a cage for your own bird?/ When it sings so sweet/ The screaming, heaving fuckery of the world?"

This fragrant fuckery segued into Stevie Wonder's urban piece de resistance Living In The City, swiftly followed by the liberating jazziness of Jackie And Wilson (complete with the audience doing slow, soulful handclaps to the beat near the end) and then (more soulful handclaps from audience and Hozier alike) to Almost (Sweet Music). ‘The same kind of music haunts her bedroom

I'm almost me again, she's almost you,’ he sang, with a Hammond organ whooshing in a southern soul moment of magic.

Bathed in moody blue light, Hozier and his band took us off to a noisey, uproarious neo-rockabilly space of Moment's Silence. ‘The pearl rosary. The common tongue.’ Indeed. This was followed by Movement and then, of course, back to where we started... the song everyone had waited for: Take Me To Church.

'My lover's got humour

She's the giggle at a funeral

Knows everybody's disapproval

I should've worshiped her sooner

If the heavens ever did speak

She's the last true mouthpiece

Every Sunday's getting more bleak

A fresh poison each week'

And then, altogether now:

‘We were born sick

You heard them say it

My church offers no absolutes

She tells me "Worship in the bedroom"

The only Heaven I'll be sent to

Is when I'm alone with you.'

The conviction with which Hozier delivered those words was infectious. The young man from Wicklow, the Bray Wanderer, was inviting the audience to join him in a kind of mystical holy communion in Midtown Manhattan last night.

His show also subverted any notion that Hozier might be becoming comfortable with his emerging superstardom.

Like an Old Testament manic street preacher speaking in tongues, Hozier's vocal performance was restless and unsettling as well as transcendent and shamanic all at once. His performance on Almost (Sweet Music) was a seat-of-the-pants miracle in Manhattan.

His current album, Wasteland, Baby! - which got a good airing last night — is about, in a sense, the end of the world as we know it via some pretty compelling apocalyptic love songs, so nobody should be too surprised at the dark undertow to his hugely popular music.

Like Thom Yorke or Bono or Nick Cave, or Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen before him, Hozier is basically looking at our sick little planet — and its leaders doing their utmost to destroy it — and seeing emptiness and pain all across the world, before finding, crucially, a splinter of hope for us among all the madness.

Still, and this is an important point, you can dance along, as did 3500 happy souls last night, to the gospel-soul extravaganza of Nina Cried Power or the finely etched sing craft of To Be Alone or get lost in the emotion of Shrike (as we all did, including Hozier). He is at heart a great entertainer who understands the basics of what the stage he stands on is for.

At 11.15pm, after encoring with Work Song ("I'd love your help on this", he asked the crowd as he was joined by Angie McMahon) and Cherry Wine, it finally reached the end; The Bray Wanderer having taken New York for himself.

His two shows — 5000 kilometres away — in Dublin's 3 Arena on December 10 and 11 cannot come soon enough.