For better or worse, Hozier's massive hit "Take Me to Church" was the song of 2014. Like a very few others ( such as "American Pie" by Don McLean, "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen, and even "It's A Sin" by The Pet Shop Boys ), the song can be easily misinterpreted and stuck on various perspectives like Velcro.
Besides what the words seem to say, the damn thing sounds like nothing that came before it and buzzes in your skull like the first obnoxious fly of summer ( again, whether you like it or not ). It makes you wonder how on earth Annie Lennox got onstage at the Grammys to upstage Hozier in his finest moment with what I felt was a pretty terrible take on Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You."
On one listen or viewing of the controversial "Church" video ( which depicts the lynching of a gay man ) without benefit of reading the lyrics, the song seems to be about religious hypocrisy, intolerance and condemnation. Hozier tilts that first impression with his use of the words "worship," "shrine," "sin" and "heaven," and then there are all those amens stuck prominently in the chorus. Truth be told, after reading the lyrics, the song seems to be about a deranged romance blown way out of proportion.
"Take Me to Church" may be Andrew Hozier-Byrne's ( his actual name ) signature piece, but as evidenced at his sold-out show at The Riviera on Feb. 25, it may well be his albatross. The CD from which the song is taken, Hozier, is packed with passion, lyricism, romance and a degree of melancholy, but there is nothing on it with the inherent drama of that one hit. "Cherry Wine," "Work Song," "From Eden," "Jackie and Wilson" and "To be Alone" are fine, straightforward, wordy Irish blues-rockers, delicately performed, carefully composed,and shot through with what sounds like an ever-present choir that gives the CD a gospel-tinged aura. The only thing that anyone could quibble about it is that the choir starts to sound like a gimmick at the halfway mark since Hozier ( as producer ) seems to think of it as a musical instrument.
The idea of having Icelandic balladeer Asgeir as the opener at The Riviera seemed shrewd, since the lyricism in his music is akin to Hozier at his most elegant. The first clue of the shadow of "Take Me to Church" was the effect it had on his guest since the space, lighting and stubborn audience worked against him. Poor Asgeir looked and sounded lost in the darkness with his delicate pop getting lost in the echo while half the audience kept right on yakking through his set. As I mentioned before ( in my Oct. 21, 2014, column ) Asgeir deserves a careful patient listenbut this was not the time or the place.
Opening the show with a pungent "Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene," and wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey, Hozier sang and played guitar with the fire and precision of a haunted troubadour performing in a hushed coffee shop. "Like People Do," "In A Week" ( a lovely duet with cellist Alana Henderson ) and the encore "Cherry Wine" were warm and intimate, and it was a pleasure to hear his onstage back-up chorus held in check while accentuating the songs. The night hit an early climax with a stinging and epic "To be Alone," which granted Hozier the chance to turn it into a sloppy blues stomper worthy of Willie Dixon.
For all the soul, Irish shout-outs, precision and punch that Hozier displayed on that stage, the attentive crowd refused to get off their asses until "Take Me to Church" rolled out near the finish. Hozier, his seven-piece band and the lighting technicians juiced those five minutes for all they were worth by infusing them with a heavy touch of bombast. To be clear, when I say "bombast," I don't mean it in a negative way since a bit more of that actually would probably do him some good.
With his just announced show at The Pritzker Pavilion in June already sold out and an ongoing tour headed for larger venues, its highly unlikely that Hozier or "Take Me to Church" will fade away soon, so you'll just have to get used to it. Hopefully, in that time his sudden new fan base will discover the intricacies of the rest of his music and behave themselves.
Nobody wants to admit that the winter of 2015 is shaping up to be as bad as the winter of 2014, and that is just fine with the folks at The Empty Bottle. On Feb. 28, the second annual Empty Bottle Winter Block Party started in the early afternoon and ended well after the sun went down, in the club and on a cordoned off section of Iowa Street. Popular local punkers Oozing Wound and Ne-Hi were on the bill with selections from Goose Island on the beer list. This time, things were a bit tamer with the crowds ( no slam-dancing that I witnessed ) and weather ( no plunging temperatures, no torrents of snow belching from the heavens ) behaving to a surprising degree.
I won't say that I cheated by spending a chunk of my time inside the club reconnecting with old friends, meeting new ones and grooving to '70s jams ( "What A Fool Believes" by The Doobie Brothers, "Rock and Roll Radio" by The Ramones ) but I will say that a swell laid-back time was had by all.