“Thanks for staying up late,” said Meg Duffy when Hand Habits took the stage at The Chapel Feb. 25. Indeed, it was late — a little shy of 11:00 p.m. — before Duffy and the band began their set, following soporific, yet enchanting acoustic performances from Boy Scouts and Tomberlin.
Duffy is a seasoned guitarist, whose associated acts include the likes of Weyes Blood, The War on Drugs and Perfume Genius. They’ll be opening for the latter on tour in just a few weeks.
Garbed in a faux fur jacket atop an otherwise minimalist outfit, Duffy eased into their set with performances of “The Answer” and “More Than Love,” singing while “dressed up in blue” under the lights. Duffy then amped it up with “Concrete & Flowers” — the song’s careening opening guitar line fomented a certain zest unable to be transmitted via its recorded counterpart.
The Chapel, as its name suggests, is a converted church in San Francisco’s Mission District. Intimate and with an unassuming facade, the venue retains a particular grandeur buttressed by dramatic vaulted ceilings. Where there may have once been a chandelier or cross, a giant disco ball now dangles.
There is something oddly Christlike about Duffy’s stage presence, very subdued and no-frills — in a good way. Also similar to Christ, Duffy’s parishioners have an eccentric quality to them. During a break between songs, they asked what Beatle they would be (Duffy’s haircut is, admittedly, moptop-esque.) “It’s giving George,” one audience member deadpanned, eliciting a giggle from the crowd.
Upon close listening, Duffy’s lyrics skew dark and moody, situated more on the fringes of understanding, in the “corners” and “drawers of your mind,” than out in the open. Still, Duffy lets their lyrics bask in the light, conferring something ineffable and brilliant, especially when they mingle with the buoyant, thrumming accompanying arrangements they sculpt.
“Aquamarine,” the lead single off of their 2021 record, Fun House, opens with instability. Something (perhaps an oscillating spring doorstop) quavers momentarily before dulcet drums kick in. “I remember when they found you/ Holding onto the gutter” Duffy intones, at the same time clutching the microphone like it might run away at any moment. Halfway through, lyrics stagnate briefly, caving into a cathartic moment of surrender.
Fun House, for all of the elusively tenebrous and brooding emotion it surveys, is still starkly textured, propagating a deliciously listenable record that doesn’t sacrifice any depth. Duffy delves into lyric happiness most ardently on “Gold/Rust” — its dichotomous title encapsulating two extremities of a relationship.“Everything covered in gold” they belted as the disco ball descended, reveling a bit in their rockstar moment.
Prior to releasing their full-length LP last year, Duffy dropped the Dirt EP, teeming with biotic ingenuity. Duffy closed out their Noise Pop set with a song off this release — the fan-favorite, “4th of July.” Folksy, soft marshmallowy peaks of guitar filtrate pure comfort; the song’s lyrics are cryptic, alluding to something disquieting. But Duffy spins grit and rough, organic edges into spellbinding artistry: “Beauty in all that machinery/ Pumping in all its autonomy, ” they sang.
At one point in the evening they brought up how the last time they played in San Francisco, a critic went after their lack of movement while performing.
“This man after the show reviewed the show on the Internet,” they said. “Ew!” someone in the audience yelled.
The critic wasn’t wrong. Live, Duffy’s physicality takes a backseat — but it doesn’t make their performance any less trenchant or captivating. Like their past collaborators, Duffy has a knack for latching onto what’s real in such a way that their lyrics lend palpability without being glib, or banal. It’s a kind of artistry that’s better felt than talked, or even written, about.