Hand Habits at Schubas

By Avery Adams

Photos by Layton Guyton

18 Jan, 2020

Day four of the five day Tomorrow Never Knows (TNK) Festival brought Hand Habits to Schubas, along with three opening acts for a night full of PBR drinkers swaying to calm, captivating music. 

I’ve been to plenty of shows at Schubas — the intimacy yet extensive recognition of the venue brings artists from all over to the 165 capacity space — from Chicago-based student bands to internationally touring artists. I’ve witnessed shows there in which I was one of only 20 people in the majority-family-and-friends audience, and ones like Saturday night, where the venue was jam-packed an hour and a half before Hand Habits even walked on stage. 

Dream-pop artist Fauvely kicked off the night, followed by the raspier, twangier Garcia Peoples. The final opener of the night, Fran, was soft spoken, yet commanded the stage like a headlining act, speaking with no urgency, but interacted with confidence unlike novice openers trying to cram in song after song. 

Meg Duffy’s quiet, unadorned walk on stage, tune of their guitar, and jump into a solo endeavor — moreover, one that no audience member could possibly recognize, as it was yet to be unreleased — was a bold move, but won over every ounce of the crowd’s attention from here on out. As the last notes off of Duffy’s guitar lingered and the rest of Hand Habits filled the stage, Duffy reassured the crowd of the song’s unfamiliarity as they joked, “Don’t worry, they’re not all like that.” 

This night marked the band’s kick-off for their upcoming tour across Europe and their first show since promoting their latest album placeholder last fall. Duffy bashfully admitted to packing too many records to bring on the plane to Europe the following day — a clever, humorous bump to buy their vinyl at the merch booth. 

Hand Habits then dove into the well-known “are you serious?” and “placeholder” before interrupting the recognition with another new one that Duffy affirmed no one’s ever heard. After receiving a good laugh from the crowd over the playful lyrics following “a damn dog” getting out, they explained how they wrote this song for their dear friend Hannah Read (better known by the stage name Lomelda), unaware during the initial dedication that it would be a heart-yanking tale. 

It would be too easy to simply compare the stylistic and rhythmic choices of Hand Habits to those of Big Thief — Meg Duffy’s vocals to those of Adrianne Lenker — but that would be erasing beauties in each respective artist. For instance, midway through “jessica,” the audience first got a glimpse of the polished impeccability of Duffy’s guitar techniques through an extended guitar solo (whammy bar and all) — shredding against an otherwise mellow, methodic ballad of forgiveness. And when they pulled a slide out of their shirt pocket during “Flower Glass,” the crowd went silent, jaws dropped, with the exception of one gasped “nice!” causing a chuckle to roll through the audience. Duffy’s career is heavily ornamented with their slide guitar skills, from their solo on “Holding On,” from The War on Drugs’ Grammy winning A Deeper Understanding, to their appearances on Weyes Blood’s Front Row Seat, as well as their title of regular guitarist, bassist, and pianist in Kevin Morby’s live band. 

Being a five-day music festival, TNK brought Chicago musicians out of the house to support fellow artists, as I ran into Chicago based musicians Tasha and Sports Boyfriend’s Eileen Peltier amongst the crowd. But when Duffy announced a special guest among the audience, I was absolutely thrilled to witness Lillie West of Lala Lala take the stage alongside Duffy. Together, these two pals — who first met in Schubas — performed “can’t calm down,” my personal favorite track off of Hand Habit’s placeholder, and in my opinion, transcended by this live rendition with the pairing of West’s deeper harmonies with Duffy’s higher pitch. 

Their set seemed to end all too fast, with a final performance of “All The While” to close out the show, but Duffy’s haunting vocals and meticulously executed melodies drifted through the room even after the band walked down the stage stairs to join the crowd. 

Set List:

  1. Unreleased
  2. are you serious?
  3. placeholder
  4. Unreleased
  5. jessica
  6. what lovers do
  7. Flower Glass
  8. can’t calm down (with Lillie West)
  9. All the While