Hozier captivates with a night of activism, music and heritage

Hozier captivates with a night of activism, music and heritage

Review: Known for his hit “Take Me to Church,” the Irish singer’s sold-out Syracuse show was a religious experience.

Hozier performs
Kayla Breen
Hozier performs “De Selby (Part 1)” at the Empower FCU Amphitheater at Lakeview on Tuesday.

With a near perfect sunset over Onondaga Lake as a backdrop, the eyes of 18,000 fans were fixed on one man Tuesday night as he took the stage: Hozier.

The popular Irish singer-songwriter had sold out the newly renamed Empower FCU Amphitheater at Lakeview and kicked off the summer concert season with a powerful and moving performance.

Moments before, audience members were milling about the arena in blistering heat left in the wake of a light afternoon shower. A lone guitar softly strummed the opening notes of “De Selby,” the first track of Hozier’s third studio album Unreal Unearth.

The crowd’s tension was palpable as the song incorporated haunting strings, only to be broken with a roar of applause. A single light illuminated Hozier from the pitch black stage as he began to croon his first note.

Written in two parts to be performed back to back, “De Selby (Part 1)”’s Gaelic ending offered a testament to Ireland’s rich heritage that would surface throughout the concert. 

During the encore, Hozier offered an impassioned speech that connected the Irish War of Independence, the Civil Rights Movement and apartheid to the recent campus protests against the war in Palestine.

In that same speech, Hozier quoted an Irish revolutionary James Connolly who famously said, “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression.” 

The current state of politics and world affairs were themes for opener Allison Russell as well. Before her fourth song, a cover of Birds of Chicago’s “Superlover,” Russell took a moment to call for a ceasefire and urged the audience to call their representatives, prompting wild applause from those in the pit. 

“Tears of rage, tears of grief, Palestine, Israel to Tennessee,” Russell converted the lyrics to say. “We need a super love”

Backup vocalist performs with Hozier at Empower FCU Ampitheater at Lakeview in Syracuse Tuesday
Hozier’s band members sing along Tuesday at Empower FCU Amphitheater at Lakeview.
Hozier performs at Empower FCU Ampitheater at Lakeview in Syracuse Tuesday, May 21, 2024.
Hozier opened his Syracuse concert Tuesday with “De Selby (Part 1)” and “De Selby (Part 2).”

Most of the crowd gathering on the lawn were not yet paying attention, as opening acts often go. However, Russell’s performance filled with gospel-like blues and rock set the tone for the rest of the night. The artist wielded multiple instruments from clarinet to banjo, also accompanied by a four-person band stacked with keys, drums, and bass and tenor guitars. At the end of her set, Russell brought out one of Hozier’s bandmates, Ithaca’s own Larissa Maestro for a duet of “‘Nightflyer”’ filled with luscious harmonies. 

As Hozier’s own set unfolded, tracks like “Jackie and Wilson,” “Two Sweet” and “It Will Come Back” were clear fan favorites, energizing the crowd from the pit to the back of the lawn. The most faithful of fans seemed to know every word, while most of the crowd just swayed to the rhythm.

If anything is clear, it’s that Hozier knows how to appeal to his young audience. He acknowledged the Class of 2024 throughout his set. 

“I’d imagine there’s a few people graduating,” he said before starting “Would That I,” and then went on to dedicate a moving cover of a traditional folk song, “The Parting Glass,” to the graduates in his brilliant encore. 

Fans sing along to one of Hozier's opening songs
Fans sing along to one of Hozier’s opening songs, “Jackie and Wilson,” on Tuesday.

He ended his main set with the nostalgic 2013 hit “Take Me to Church,” culminating in a powerful display of vocal prowess emphasized by lighting theatrics. During the song, he waved an LGBTQ pride flag on stage. 

The act of seeing Hozier perform was a religious experience, connecting fans with their spiritual leader. It became even more apparent during the encore as he traveled into the stands to start with one of his first songs, “Cherry Wine,” in an intimate serenade to his Syracuse audience.

After the serenade ended, Hozier returned to the stage to deliver his strongest message of the night. He emphasized his Irish roots in a prolonged speech about today’s social issues before singing “Nina Cried Power,” which he once sang with Civil Rights activist and musician Mavis Staples, who he noted recently turned 85. He wrote the song about Irish freedom but says that at its core, it’s about civil liberties, freedoms and the things we often take for granted. 

Hozier ended the night with a song many fans had been waiting to hear, “Work Song,” which he brought out Allison Russell for. In closing, he proclaimed his love for the region, admiring its natural beauty. As Hozier loves upstate New York, the feeling is mutual.