Hozier | photo by Emily DeHart for WXPN
XPN Fest Recap: Hozier and Japanese Breakfast close night one with their hearts on their sleeves
Emotion was in the air for all of XPNFest yesterday, but particularly during the pairing of night one headliners Hozier and Japanese Breakfast. Both are masters of songcraft that is intensely personal and often quite cathartic. But their music is also able to transcend their own experience and connect with listeners in a big way, thanks to innovative, engaging arrangements and a strong pop sensibility.
With hearts on sleeves from both ends of the BB&T show, last night’s set was also a study in contrasts — Hozier’s rough-hewn gospel / blues homages with Japanese Breakfast’s ethereal electronic pop, and Andrew John Hozier-Byrne’s direct and detailed lyrical confessions with Michelle Zauner’s nuanced, impressionistic songs of loss and connection.
Following an early opening set by the daring, eclectic Philly combo Killiam Shakespeare — which fuses funk, hip-hop, prog, and pop tones and textures — Japanese Breakfast took the BB&T stage. The band opened with the effervescent “In Heaven” and the downbeat groover “The Woman That Loves You,” back-to-back selections from their 2016 album Psychopomp. That album was famously written and recorded as Zauner processed the illness and passing of her mother, and while its songs are uplifting and sometimes lighthearted (“Everybody Wants To Love You”), they carry a certain emotional gravity. Their followup release, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, looks at human relationships with a wider lens, whether it be the tragic emotional distance of “Boyish,” the devotion of “Til Death,” or the inner strength of “The Body Is A Blade.”
Soft Sounds, hard as it is to imagine, has been out for over two years, and at this point, JBrekkie the band are locked-in pros at playing it, moreso than they already were. Craig Hendrix provided swift, composed rhythms and soaring backing vocals from the drum riser, Deven Craige rocked out on bass at stage right, while Peter Bradley took on synth lead guitar duties at stage left, stepping to the mouth of the pit to take a solo here, collectedly complimenting Zauner’s buoyant, dance-heavy energy there. As the frontwoman noted, the BB&T was the biggest hometown venue Japanese Breakfast has played. “We’ve played Kung Fu Necktie a lot, North Star Bar, Johnny Brendas,” she said. “But this is special. I’m going to savor this with my Guitargarita.”
Also special: the horn accompaniment that joined for the second half of the set. With Carolyn Haynes on saxophone and Asher Brooks on trumpet, the chugging rocker “Rugged Country” was re-invigorated through fanfare, while the closing expanse of “Diving Woman” stretched into the night in a way that reminded this writer of the denouement in Neil Halstead’s “See You On Rooftops.” Beautiful.
Taking the stage just before 10 to a mostly full house, Hozier wasted no time going big. “Would That I” leapt off the stage with full band vocals joining Hozier’s soul-inspired growl, while thundering drums and big wordless choruses brought the heat on “Dinner & Diatribes.” This group vocalization is a big thing in Hozier’s songs and setlist — my notes for his performance include “woah oh oh” a few times — and it gives his music an innate interactivity and connectivity, whether he’s channeling the legacy of protest singers and wishing himself in their lineage during “Nina Cried Power,” or cutting loose and upbeat on his pop pinnacles “Someone New” and “Almost (Sweet Music).”
While it’s surprising that somethingso easy and unfussy as those latter two songs could be so satisfying, it’s equally surprising to see large swatches of the crowd locked in to Hozier’s more complex moments, whether it be the fiddle-led folk jam on “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” the heady Neil Young-esque swamp blues of “Talk,” or the existential malaise of “No Plan.”
While so much of the set directly addresses Hozier’s personal conflicts between lust and spirituality (his famed show-stopper “Take Me To Church”) and his relationship trials (“From Eden”), the dense “No Plan” is a broad look at death, not just our own, but the death of existence. Based on the writing of physicists Lawrence M. Krauss and Katie Mack, it talks about how the end of extension is inevitable: “It’s about how all the stars have to burn themselves out one day,” Hozier told the crowd. “It’s about the end of life itself. Don’t sweat the small things, there are far worse things to look forward to.”
It makes despair catchy, though, as Hozier essentially questions the existence of a higher power on the refrain: “There’s no plan, there’s no hand on the reign. / As Mack explained, there will be darkness again.” Bleak, but people were dancing. With the set closing on the doomy piano chords of “Church,” it on paper seems like night one of XPNFest was a massive downer. But between Hozier and JBrekkie, that was not the case. Serious emotions are powerful things, but music is perhaps a more powerful means of spinning to them something beautiful and true.
Check out a gallery of photos from the show below.
Would That I
Dinner & Diatribes
Nina Cried Power
To Be Alone
Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene
Almost (Sweet Music)
Jackie and Wilson
Moment’s Silence (Common Tongue)
Take Me to Church
Japanese Breakfast Setlist
The Woman That Loves You
The Body Is A Blade
Everybody Wants To Love You