A truth unspooled from the almighty gospel of Hozier: The universe still craves rock 'n' roll that means something. Even if rock today doesn't matter like it did.
"I was writing a few songs for, I suppose, the end of the world -- a few love songs for the end of the world," the Irish singer-songwriter told a sold-out crowd Wednesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, introducing the title track to his new LP Wasteland, Baby!. "It's one to keep in your back pocket for the worst of times."
A bit dire? Not if you were there to hear it live. A week after Wasteland, Baby! debuted atop the charts -- the first rock album in three months to do so, and only the third since last summer -- Andrew Hozier-Byrne and his splendid backing band took the Mahaffey way beyond church, delivering a towering set of alternative blues, folk and soul that made you wonder how dead rock 'n' roll really is.
It's hard not to dissect Hozier, 29, without considering the country he came from. The way he and his band clapped, stomped and plucked through percussive openers Would That I and Dinner and Diatribes recalled the Chieftains; the bright, buoyant soul of Nobody shone like that of Van Morrison. Even the slinkier, shadowier sections of his set, like To Be Alone or Someone New, felt like Zooropa U2 covering Rattle and Hum U2.
The band deserves a huge amount of credit for that stadium-sized sound, especially when all seven members cooed out immaculate vocal harmonies behind him on his bombastic hit Take Me to Church. Hozier's name may sit near the top of a lot of big festival posters, but the way his band ground out the sinful, swinging blues of Moment's Silence (Common Tongue), he could headline any blues festival in America tomorrow. Organist Cormac Curran provided tender depth to the minimal Wasteland, Baby!, and guitarist and violinist Suzanne Santo was a magnetic presence on just about everything.
But it was of course the lanky Hozier, with his prophetic baritone and stringy rock-god coif, who commanded the most attention. He toyed with time and cadence, moaning over the off-kilter syncopation of Jackie and Wilson and Something New, and ladling an earnest sweetness over the snappy, clappy Almost (Sweet Music). Bathed in menacing, blood-red light, he conjured the voodoo of Jimi and Stevie Ray from a gas-can guitar on the sinister To Be Alone. And because he didn't already seem singular enough, he delivered a mini-lecture on ornithology before Shrike, a song bearing the simple but sweeping elegance of Leonard Cohen.
On top of it all, Hozier came across as a genuine gentleman. His band was more than half women, a rarity in the rock world, and he was effusive about the beauty of St. Pete and the Mahaffey. And when it came time for intros at the end, he not only shouted out his bandmates, but his techs, his management, his sound and lighting folks and his engineers -- all by name. In Hozierland, no one goes unthanked.
Hozier also heaped heavy praise on his opening act, Jade Bird -- and with good reason.
The British singer-songwriter, tabbed by many as a 2019 artist to watch, brought the house down with a 10-song acoustic set that pulled heavily from her forthcoming, self-titled debut album.
Bird, 21, blended '90s riot-grrl power-pop (Uh Huh, I Get No Joy) and ex-eviscerating lyrics (Lottery) with a little Sun Records stomp (Good Woman) and some deceptively intricate guitarwork (Does Anybody Know). And between songs, she delighted the audience with disarming, self-deprecating charm, guffawing big, Annie Hall, la-di-da chuckles through a gigantic grin.
But anytime a song called for her to unleash her wildest wail ("They're all pretty shouty," she snickered), she sounded like a rock heavyweight, a young hybrid of Grace Slick and Ann Wilson and Melissa Etheridge. The way the audience stood and roared after she reeled off the lyrically dextrous I Get No Joy and Going Gone while knock-knock-knocking out a beat on the body of her shiny white Taylor ... is it too soon to invoke the name Dylan? Is that way too much, way too soon?
Yeah, fine, it is. But at least Bird and Hozier are making music that's getting people out of their seats -- rock 'n' roll that really seems to mean something. In 2019, that matters quite a lot.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.