With nothing but love in my mind, I can declare with confidence that the milling throng of young folks all clad in vintagey earth tones and patched-up corduroy certainly looked like the sort who would enjoy Hozier’s unique brand of groovy, forest-dwelling folk-rock music. It was just barely 6 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12th that I found myself among these eager people, inching along in line at Huntington Bank Pavilion. With just a little more than an hour before the second date of Hozier’s “Unreal Unearth” tour was slated to begin, the air was abuzz with tangibly mounting excitement.
As a writer and illustrator with a vested interest in the more sensitive side of supernatural narratives, the warm-heartedly eerie poetry of his lyrics has called to me for years now — but I confess my interest was mostly in passing; just a handful of songs in frequent rotation among my most-replayed musical muses. However, with a good friend’s patronage — if you’re reading this, thank you! — I had the privilege of this being the first real live music concert I’ve ever attended, and I jumped at the chance to learn more about this much-beloved artist. I had no expectations, “Unreal Unearth” set a higher bar than I could ever have hoped for.
It takes special care and passion to deliver the kinetically emotive energy that Hozier’s bluesy folk-rock brings to its studio recordings. That said, agood live show takes all the best parts of a great artist’s work, writes them large, and then shares them in a way far more intimate than any recorded session could ever hope to achieve.
The sold-out crowd of strangers felt like a gathering of long-lost friends because not a second of this concert went without a permeating sense of warmth and grandeur. To my delight, Hozier addressed us all with corresponding warmth, eager to offer up his creative muses; and I was lucky enough to be able to take down much of what he had to say.
Hozier was opened by fellow singer-songwriter, Madison Cunningham, about whom he had this to say: “I think Madison represents some of the most talented — one of the greatest creative minds of my generation. And I’m so proud.”
I can’t help but agree; if you like Hozier’s work, I reckon you’ll enjoy Cunningham just as well. Like him, her studio recordings scarcely compare to the raw character of her live performance, but both of her albums are rife with sharp-tongued personality and pensive candor.
Carrying herself with inconspicuous competence, Cunningham played a selection mostly from her 2022 album, “Revealer,” which she wrote and recorded across the various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve never played in front of this many people in my life,” Cunningham confessed after her fourth song, the mournfully introspective “Death by Suspicion.” But, she went on to say, “I still feel like I’m in someone’s living room somewhere, and I think that speaks to who you all are.”
Of the seven songs performed, each was technically dense with deft guitar and rolling tom-heavy drums. Cunningham herself demonstrated great range, too, with the higher-energy songs carried by emotive, belting vocals, and the slower turning wistfully fragile and soft.
Regarding the man himself, I think I’ve refrained from the main event for quite long enough. After ten years and three full albums, Hozier has become a household name. This is hugely attributed to his debut single “Take Me To Church” which celebrated its tenth anniversary the day after this very concert.
In the same tradition of “Take Me to Church”, “Unreal Unearth” is a deeply sensitive album, exploring love and religion across blurred lines of personal testimony and classical literature alike. From quavering dirges to energetic R&B anthems, the album carries with it a greater range and overall bigger sound than anything Hozier has yet released..
“De Selby (Part 1),” Hozier’s first song of the night, an easy favorite of mine, is characterized by delicate guitar and wistful vocals which were both overwhelmingly empowered by the scale and volume of the concert performance. It’s difficult to overstate the affective power of each sighing chord as it rumbled up through my feet, creating a monumental feeling. Even during the less energetic songs, that energy lingered as rapt and caring audience attention..
Hozier’s conversational asides and explanations buoyed up the atmosphere. The upbeat love song “Francesca,” the third song of the night, was uniquely prefaced by Hozier’s context about its relationship with “The Divine Comedy:” “It kind of directly references these two characters in Dante’s Inferno,” he explained, “Who were real Italian historical figures from Florence who fell in love, and had an affair, and were murdered for that as a result. […] There’s no punishment in spending eternity arm in arm with the person that you would have died for. That’s Francesca.” With this context, the performance was irretrievably built around that defiant kindness that so characterizes the “Unreal Unearth” album and concert at large.
“Have I mentioned how much I love Chicago? I haven’t, and every time I come here I just love being in this city.” Hozier said following the eighth song, “Dinner & Diatribes.” He continued saying, ”as a child, a huge amount of my musical influences were all comin’ out of Chicago, you know? And also, every time I’m here, if I ever have a day off, I just love walking your beautiful city..”
The live debut of “To Someone From A Warm Climate (Uiscefhuaraithe),” which was prefaced by a fascinating and personal aside on Hozier’s relationship with the Irish language. Despite having studied the Irish language throughout his childhood, Hozier expressed wonder at his discovery of the word “uiscefhuaraithe,” which he defined as, “the very specific sensation that you feel, let’s say, when you pick a rock from a river and you know that that rock is cold. Your body tells you that rock is cold, but your body tells you also that it has been made cold by water. And that can be described as uiscefhuaraithe.” This exploration is new to “Unreal Unearth,” but seems to have been given great thought. “De Selby (Part 1)” includes lyrics in Gaeilge, and the slow extinction of indigenous languages is bitterly recalled in “Butchered Tongue.” The mournful tone rose to cheer again with “Like Real People Do,” a throwback from Hozier’s self-titled 2014 album. There was much cheering, singing along, and gooey couples swaying together through the isles with genuinely delightful sweetness.
After a selection of songs from the newest record, the audience was invited to sing along to “Would That I” and “Almost (Sweet Music),” a pair of songs from the 2019 album, “Wasteland Baby!” And last, but certainly not least, the main set was closed out with a truly rousing performance of “Take Me To Church,” which was met with shrieking cheers and fan enthusiasm so hearty that, more than once, Hozier simply shut his mouth and raised his arms to invite us all to sing. That final song closed out with one absolute hell of a drum solo, and the singers left the stage.
After much continued shouting and cheering, the band returned for their encore, which included the 2018 track “Nina Cried Power.”
“This next song,” Hozier began over the beat of the opening drums, “I want to dedicate this to Mavis Staples who is who’s a huge hero of mine, and it is one of the biggest honors of my life that I got to know Mavis Staples a little bit more over the years. And, I was writing this song about the importance of the legacy of direct action and protest. […] As the Irish revolutionary James Connolly once said: ‘No revolution exists without its poetical expression,’ and Mavis Staples embodies the poetical expression of a revolution of love, of joy, of inclusion, and of a vision of a better kind of world. It was such an honor recording this song here in Chicago with [her].”
Hozier and company finished the night with one final song from the “Hozier” album, “Work Song.” The audience sang contentedly along to the end and cheered tremendously through the band’s group hug and final bows — and I, for my part, went home aglow with that same fulfilling exhaustion as after hours spent with friends. Emotionally intense but welcoming, effortlessly charming, and promising continued greatness for (hopefully) another decade to come, I can imagine nothing better than this to be the first live music I’ve ever been privileged to experience.