Review: David Keenan and Hozier @ The Royal Concert Hall

Published

Credit: Charys Newton

Charys Newton
Writer

You may remember ​David Keenan​ from a winsome viral clip that floated around the internet circa 2015. A young Irish lad with an acoustic guitar in the passenger seat of local cab firm, Maxi’s Taxi, bundled in a huge scarf and nodding shyly at the dashboard camera as the titular cabbie grins and chatters. Keenan’s scrappy talent is evident in his gutsy roadside performance of a skeletal El Paso, the wistful original tale of border towns and disillusionment that social media subsequently fell in love with. Since then, he’s loosened up a bit – grown out his hair, unbuttoned his shirt – and the 26-year-old Dundalk native who sauntered onto the stage in Glasgow was almost unrecognisable from the coltish YouTube sensation of yesteryear.

One crucial element remains, however – his easy, instinctive ability to charm. Launching into the tremulous Big Boys Must Cry, he twists and writhes his way through an impassioned rebuke to restrictive masculinity that showcases his robust charisma. A recent signee of esteemed Irish label, Rubyworks, Keenan’s tangled guitar-led narratives of human connection blur the lines between poetry and song, offering up personal anecdotes and fragments of lives lived strangely on Sacred Cough Bottle and Postcards From Catalonia. His Brendan Behan and Tim Buckley-influenced folk tales are charged with an intense desire to connect, and highlights such as Only A Moment Away and James Dean are interspersed with Keenan’s winking stage patter; “I had a dream I met James Dean working on the Irish Rail,” he says to warm laughter ahead of the eponymous track. “Must have dropped a couple of Babybels before that one”.

In his show, David Keenan was a million miles away from the sugar-rush of viral success, and in his steady wind towards maturity, it is clear he has found something deeper and sweeter. Alone on the sparsely decorated stage, aside from a battered guitar case that bears his name in fluorescent tape, he fiercely juts his chin towards the rafters and alternates between half-persuading, half-commanding the audience to attention. It speaks of his confidence that he is able to fully snare them.

It is to ​Hozier​ we now looked for the rest of the evening. Keenan’s labelmate and fellow countryman, Andrew Hozier-Byrne’s brand of Irish folk is an altogether darker, knottier beast. Since the 29-year-old shot to household name-status in 2014, after a video for the grandiose Take Me To Church drew widespread acclaim, Hozier-Byrne has steadily shifted towards swampy blues-rock while maintaining a defiant protest spirit, releasing thorny second album Wasteland, Baby! in the spring of this year.

The quietly insistent As It Was opens a set which draws heavily from that record, with occasional skips back towards early fan favourites including Jackie and Wilson and From Eden, which were received with gusto. The tracks from Wasteland, Baby! are slicker and more honed than their folky predecessors, all inky hues and slinking bass as on Talk, an almost unbearably sultry track that draws from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. ”Imagine being loved by me,” Hozier-Byrne intones over sly guitar lines, wreathed in red smoke.

Nina Cried Power, an incendiary ode to the greats of protest music taken from last year’s eponymous EP, is an obvious highlight – the coterie of musicians who flank Hozier look as if they are trying to perform a sort of collective exorcism – and Take Me To Church, which arrives with a certain inevitability to close the show, draws the loudest reaction of the night. The camera-lights that wave aloft for an encore rendition of Cherry Wine, however, suggest that Glasgow’s love for Hozier runs deeper than the surface.