Hand Habits Speaks for Itself at Swedish American Hall

Musician Meg Duffy highlighted an evening of awesome and inspiring music.

(Zack Ruskin)

On Saturday night, San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall served as a pulpit for the future of music. As the charts continue to converge into an indistinguishable glut of algorithm-approved, hashtag-complaint tedium, songs and artists that break the mold have become akin to an endangered species. However, for at least one evening, there was refuge from this mediocrity to be found.

Performing on the venue’s small wooden stage, headliner Hand Habits and supporting acts Stephen Steinbrink and Wizard Apprentice each took a turn reminding the crowd that music remains as wild and diverse as ever.

Many times, it feels necessary to suggest that one cannot truly understand what it is to experience a musician without actually watching them live. Some of this is simply laziness, but in rare cases, it can actually be an accurate caveat. Such is the case for Wizard Apprentice, the name under which Oakland’s Tieraney Carter performs. Comprised of music mixed with spoken word and digitally manipulated video segments, watching Wizard Apprentice is like peering inside your own insecurities.

By using a shadow-self that appears on screens behind her to address the audience, explain her lyrics, and do her social media plugs at the end of her set, Carter is able to remain fully focused on her performance. Rather than serving as a disconnect, this creative choice enables the audience to see Carter solely as an extension of her art. Watching her contort her body and shrink away during “I Am Invisible” or patiently allow for sparse blips to mature into an oasis of sound was truly mesmerizing.

With lyrics that often posit self-realization as the ultimate drug, Wizard Apprentice is the type of act you know somewhat instantly is doing something important — even if defining exactly what that might be is slightly trickier.

Following a short break, next up was the phenomenal Stephen Steinbrink. Another Oakland artist, Steinbrink’s music recalls all the best aspects of bedroom pop. His songs are lightly psychedelic, jangling odes steeped in an emotional disquiet that never succumbs to morose indulgences. In the case of Steinbrink’s latest album, “Utopia Teased,” the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire led him to take shelter in a shipping container.

Performed live, the metal confines of Steinbrink’s chosen studio were replaced with the high ceilings and holy décor of the Swedish American Hall. Backed by the welcome surprise of Madeline Kenney on keys and Taylor Vick (Boy Scouts) providing backing vocals, Steinbrink’s songs were a dreamy yet poignant ride on a slipstream of grief and beauty. Anchored by Steinbrink’s stunning falsetto—a sweet narrator that guides his work across beds of folksy guitar riffs and hushed synths—what stuck out most were the flourishes of humor contained within his lyrics.

Whether it was a resigned aside about seasonal scheduling at coffee chains (“I can’t talk about Christmas plans at Starbucks”) or a pointed bit of millennial nihilism (“You’re 31, you don’t believe in anything”), there was a lightness to be found in Steinbrink’s work that served to balance the darkness that inspired it.

By the time the evening’s headliner reached the stage, it seemed like the dessert to a decadent meal.

Hand Habits is a project devised by Meg Duffy (a non-binary musician who uses they/them pronouns). Their first album—2017’s “Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void)”—was a fragile offering that contrasted queer stories with rustic beauty. With their new release, “placeholder,” the artist’s explorations of identity and companionship are buoyed by the rich sheen of slide guitar and an almost idyllic sonic quality.

Dressed in a suit and flanked by a well-practiced backing band, Duffy used an early tuning break to inform the audience that the promotional Frisbees they’d ordered for the tour had turned out far smaller than anticipated.

“Five inches isn’t that big,” Duffy concluded. “If you have a small dog though, they’ll probably love it.”

Largely unassuming, Duffy’s deadpan tenor made each alluring, expansive guitar solo all the more spellbinding. By employing a songcraft that aptly conjures anger, dismay, and melancholy within its notes and words, Duffy is allowed to remain largely neutral. Not one to emote through expression or shatter glass with the weight of their voice, Duffy instead provides the blank canvas upon which uncertainties great and small are fully realized alongside gorgeous choruses and soothing bridges.

By night’s end, it was hard to quantify how entirely joyous it was to watch not one but three artists each declare their intentions to continue making the music they need to make. Hopefully such efforts will lead to singles and starred reviews, but even if they don’t, the splendor of their performances at Swedish American was a reminder that the best thing you’ll next hear isn’t a click away but simply down the street.

 

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