by Sophie Burkholder
On a weekend of a series of some of the first intensely humid thunderstorms of the summer, the Benedum Center hosted the soulful indie rock of New York trio BAILEN and Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. After entering the theater under the yellow glow of the marquee, selections of 60s-era blues and soul like the Ronettes and Smokey Robinson blessed the ears of patrons until the show began. Equipped with the standard sippy cup drink provided by ornate theaters like the Benedum, fans both young and old, dressed in outfits ranging from prairie dresses and high heels to cutoff denim shorts with oversized T-shirts, followed the vested ushers to their seats for the sold-out show.
Full of instruments in every corner, Hozier’s immense band set up on stage almost minimized the three members of BAILEN when they first emerged, equipped with only two guitars, a bass, and some kind of makeshift drum kit made up of a couple of symbols and an amplified hollow box-like stool. One of the band members slid a rectangular sign with the word “BAILEN” spelled out in neon green duct tape in front of the bass drum of the kit behind them that spelled out “Hozier,” and chuckled at their craftiness before starting the set with “Rose Leaves,” the penultimate track off of their debut album, Thrilled to Be Here.
BAILEN is a band of family members, a pair of fraternal twin brothers and their sister, who trade vocals and instruments through their winding folk songs. With echoing three-part harmonies, they are at times reminiscent of the gorgeous sound behind the Fleet Foxes’ debut, but BAILEN’s smaller range of instruments keeps them a bit simpler, and more grounded. Though most of their songs are the sort of heartbreakingly naive love songs that overpopulate this genre, BAILEN’s interspersing of a harmonica solo or guitar lick in the breaks between verses sets them apart. While some of their themes might be a little tired, they are nonetheless common experiences that had the crowd cheering loudly after each song, finally whipping out their phones at the band’s request to follow them on different social media platforms.
Martha and the Vandellas brought some Motown back to the theater speakers for the break between sets before Andrew Hozier-Byrne, professionally known as Hozier, took the stage with a seven-person band behind him. The sprawl of percussive instruments, guitars, violins, stand-up pianos, and keyboards was surprising given the typically uncomplicated sound of Hozier’s singer-songwriter tracks. And given some of the arena-rock antics and cheerleader-style hand-clapping that followed from some of the band members, I questioned whether their presence was truly necessary for this kind of music. As Hozier rolled from one song to the next, giving equal time to tracks off of his debut, Hozier, and the 2019 follow-up, Wasteland, Baby!, there seemed to be a tension running through the theater – one between the intimacy of his music and crowd of strangers he presided over, and certainly one between those awkwardly standing and those who remained sitting that usually occurs at these sort of theater shows.
Despite some of the formulaic dancing and over-energized solo trading between band members, Hozier himself helped put the crowd at ease with continued encouragement of dancing and singing along, sharing background details about birds for songs like “Shrike” and giving thanks for fans’ appreciation and the beauty of the theater. If some of the band interactions were staged, they seemed less so in the performances of the songs off of Hozier. To me at least, these songs are less commercial and darker in their messages and rhythms than some of the saccharine tales of lost love on Wasteland, Baby!. Hozier’s debut is rooted in foundational blues and soul chords that make those songs ring with a more classic power than the prettily sparkling notes of “Almost (Sweet Music)” and its companions on the second record.
And in fact, these first songs were the ones that wrapped the show up in a filling conclusion, as Hozier ended the set on his multi-platinum single, “Take Me to Church,” and followed it with an encore of “Cherry Wine” and “Work Song.” Perhaps I should acknowledge that I may have been a harsher judge of BAILEN and Hozier than most of the fans at the Benedum last night – they have an undying optimism about love and relationships that I find hard to share, the kind of optimism that seems to require a dangerous sort of naivete, the kind that guarantees future heartbreak. Maybe that’s why I found the darker rhythms and messages of both bands more captivating than the overly sweet ones last night, because they embrace the imperfections with a painful and heartfelt bravery that can be as magical as a warmly soulful rock show on a humid summer night.