Hozier cranks up the volume on the UBC campus

Hozier and Madison Ryann Ward at the Thunderbird Sports Centre, 10/18/19 Photo by Mariko Margetson

Hozier is truly in his own lane in the modern pop music scene. What other guy with a theatrical, resonant bass range, and lyrics quite this dense and poetic could sell out an arena on a university campus?

Thunderbird Arena’s usual standing pit was replaced by rows of seats, suggesting a subdued and classy affair in line with his acoustic ballads, but Hozier plugged in the amplifiers and made most of his songs newly loud and arena-sized.

Despite highly-anticipated opening act Freya Ridings coming down with laryngitis a couple of days before the tour, Madison Ryann Ward stepped in on short notice and showcased some pretty stunning vocals. Dressed in a hoodie and bandanna, her riffs were jazzy and complex.

Hozier strode out unceremoniously and picked up his trusty acoustic guitar, singing album cut “As It Was” for a slightly ominous opener bathed in a single red spotlight.

It was a perfect introduction to what Hozier does best, capturing this eerie feeling as he sings larger-than-life lyrics about the power of love in a minor key. He’s simultaneously celebrating it and a little scared of it.

Photo by Mariko Margetson

Done with the quieter acoustic opener, the other members of the band turned the distortion up to the maximum for “Dinner & Diatribes.” Images of hooded figures and wolves flashed behind them to complete Hozier’s undeniable woodland druid vibe.

“If I had my way half of you would be up here,” Hozier yelled over the band, but the stage was already pretty packed.

Hozier had seven other musicians up there with him, including two keyboardists and three percussionists. Complexity isn’t usually something you associate with Hozier’s music, but high levels of musicianship were on display all night.

It was Emily Kohavi, the violinist, that stole the show. Her dress flowing as if she were performing on top of a windswept hill; her solos often added an extra dimension to Hozier’s familiar material.

Actually, Hozier gave all of his musicians moments to shine in an extended jam session during, appropriately, “Almost (Sweet Music),” an ode to music itself. A synth keyboard solo at the end of “No Plan” transitioned perfectly into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s synth-rock track “Living for the City.”

He even engaged in a classic vocal call-and-response, coming into his own as a rock frontman.

“I need to see what vocal health you’re in Vancouver, I’m worried about you, you need to eat your vegetables,” he said. After being unsatisfied with the initial response, he muttered into the microphone “…so how long have you been feeling like this?”

Photo by Mariko Margetson

For all the headbanging and wailing guitars that took up most of the night, some of the best moments actually came when Hozier picked up the acoustic guitar again so we could really focus on his impressive voice.

The back-to-back quieter tracks “From Eden” and “Shrike” made for a beautiful ten minutes, as the voices of the arena rose up above the noise for the first time to sing along as the phone lights went up. There’s always something to be said for simplicity.

Protest song “Nina Cried Power” was played early in the show, as audience members held fists high, but the rebellion didn’t stop there. The crowd was also lucky enough to hear an unreleased song that Hozier stated was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s anti-Nazi anthem “Tear the Fascists Down.”

Of course, Hozier closed his main set with his biggest hit, “Take Me to Church,” which was a singalong for the ages; but coming back out with “Work Song” for the encore was even bigger. The song naturally lends itself to a sweeping, communal feel, and audience participation was high on the stomps and claps.

“We’ll see you again,” assured Hozier as he left the stage. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait so long next time.