Do you ever have moments as a music fan where you are hearing an artist for the first time and just immediately know they are destined for greatness? Sure, you may stumble upon an artist’s new single on a curated Spotify playlist or enjoy an opening act’s performance for a show you went to solely for the headliner, but I’m talking about more. That feeling of finding a hidden gem of the music industry is exactly how I, and I would assume the other 4,000 people, thought when Angie McMahon stepped on the stage this past Sunday night at the Chicago Theatre.
McMahon, a 25-year-old Australian singer/songwriter, got her start back in 2013 after winning a spot to open for Bon Jovi on the Australian leg of their “Because We Can” tour. She has also had stints opening for the likes of Father John Misty, Alanis Morrisette, and The Pixies. Her debut album, Salt, was released in 2019 and peaked at #5 on the Australian charts. NPR called her “a one-woman reincarnation of Fleetwood Mac.” Need I say more?
McMahon arrived onstage just a few minutes past her scheduled start time, taking the stage solo in a pair of burnt orange overalls, an electric guitar strung over her shoulder. This was McMahon’s first night supporting Hozier on his sold-out tour: so you would expect anyone to be nervous, right? Well, if Angie was, which she noted later on into the set, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. Like, at all. I’m pretty sure the stragglers making way to their seats stopped dead in their tracks the moment McMahon opened her mouth during her first song: it was that powerful. For someone who initially seemed to be very soft-spoken, calm, and reserved, her voice told a larger-than-life story. You can see how her vocal ability and style of music fit perfectly with Hozier: both have an incredible range and rasp to their voice that comes off effortlessly. Think the power of Florence Welch of Florence and The Machine‘s vocals, combined with the rasp of Hannah Joy of Middle Kids.
Her 35-minute set was stacked with songs about love, relationships, horrible first dates, feminism, and…pasta. There’s a mix of self-confidence and self-deprecation embedded in her work that makes you feel like she’s your best friend you met on your first day of college after complimenting you on your shoes while you’re in line for a coffee. My favorite moment of her set was the backstory to one of her tracks, about a bad first date where she had to explain to said date about why she didn’t want to listen to a song on the radio that was performed by a predator, and that she had to spend the evening explaining why women and men should be treated equally. The song is called “And I Am A Woman.”
McMahon referenced that this was her first show without her band, though you wouldn’t have ever thought that something was missing from her performance. With the spotlight entirely on her, literally and metaphorically, she seemed to feel right at home, in one of Chicago’s most iconic venues, performing to a sold-out crowd.
Next on the bill for the evening was the one and only Hozier, someone whose performance I have been dying to see for over five years. I had the opportunity to see his set at Lollapalooza this summer, and he performed at Jerry Bryant Television when I was in college and interned there, but neither compares to an entire headlining set. I’m sure the majority of the people who read my blog are aware who Hozier is, so I will refrain from giving his life story, but I’ll give you the TLDR version.
Andrew John Hozier-Byrne is an Irish singer-songwriter who had his breakthrough year back in 2013 with his smash hit “Take Me To Church,” a song about “organizations or institutions that would teach people to be ashamed” about their sexuality. The music video for the song, which has been viewed over 320 million times and depicts the violence against the LBGTQ community in Russia.
Hozier’s follow-up to his debut album released in 2014, Wasteland Baby! was released in March of this year. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 Chart. Since its release, Hozier has been touring to support the album and stints at major music festivals. His two shows at The Chicago Theater continued the Wasteland Baby! tour, continuing this fall in North America and ending with two shows in Ireland this December.
Since Hozier is already a massively successful, worldwide superstar, I don’t feel like it’s necessary to dive into his performance or rant about his undiscovered talent. I did want to talk about the way that he writes music as protest songs, and how specific each song is in terms of meaning to him, and how interesting it is to see the way he explains his thought process come to life in a performance. “Take Me To Church” was a wildly successful song, on the radio and all, but I can’t imagine that everyone who would sing along to it on the radio was aware of the contextual meaning behind the track without actually analyzing the lyrics. This sort of subtle protest song seems to be evident in other musician’s songwriting choices (The first song I think of is Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince”) and how difficult it is to create a song that’s catchy but still making a statement about something. Hozier took this concept to the next level on his track, “Nina Cried Power,” ft. Mavis Staples, making a note that it doesn’t matter what a song is saying “as long as you tell the truth.”
The song is “a suggestion that the battle for equality these artists championed remains an ongoing and necessary one. “The fights that took place 100 years ago or 200 years ago for whatever — civil rights or workers’ right etc. — don’t stop. There is no final victory. [Staples is] the most amazing person, just fucking unbelievable. [Her] energy is still absolutely there” – Hozier commented in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Though not necessarily a protest song, Hozier seems to enjoy saying something greater in his music than just creating a catchy melody. His song “No Plan,” was inspired by the work of Dr. Katie Mack, a theoretical cosmologist and Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. The song questions what will happen when the universe comes to an end, and how Mack’s studies have influenced Hozier’s own thought process and his songwriting. After he explained this reasoning before performing the song, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly creeped out yet simultaneously impressed at someone who could create a beautiful song about such a dark topic.
My favorite moments of Hozier’s performance were hearing “From Eden,” “Jackie and Wilson,” and “Cherry Wine.” Though I loved Wasteland Baby! just as much as the next person, Hozier’s debut album has been one that has stuck with me for years and it was incredible to finally get to hear some of those songs live.
Angie McMahon and Hozier have something in common: they are really freaking good at speaking about universal emotions in personal ways. Angie’s songwriting is more introverted, speaking on personal experiences that are relatable, I.E. eating too much pasta and going on a date with a misogynist. Hozier questions institutions of power and the meaning of life, but in a way that feels personal and relatable, just like McMahon. I’m not one to be an asshole about music that is one dimensional or meaningless, because I like a catchy pop song as much as the next person, but seeing two performances that feel more raw, genuine, and crafted with care is a rarity, certainly when they’re two performances at the same show.
As always, thank you so much for reading.
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