A friend once said, “how dare you talk while Meg Duffy is performing,” referring to a group of drunks chattering noisily in the back of the room during a hushed, acoustic Hand Habits performance last November. That friend had only been living in Albany for three years, having entered the scene at about the time she left, but he already understood the legendary status that Duffy holds in Albany’s D.I.Y. folklore.
On February 18, the 26-year-old phenomenon made a grand return to the Capital District, where she resided for six years, to the sight of roughly 80 faces—a makeup of friends, family, and wide-eyed fans—flocking to a house in downtown Albany to witness her homecoming. Duffy, who calls her project Hand Habits, played almost exclusively from her debut full-length Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), a record that Pitchfork praised as “a joyous, open-ended study in vulnerability.” Sharing the stage (or floor, rather, as it all went down in an unassuming, furnished basement) that night were local “worry pop” darlings Another Michael and Hand Habits’ current tourmates John Andrews & the Yawns.
“It was definitely the most high-pressure show of the tour, aside from the release show,” Duffy said afterwards. “All these people have watched me grow, so I felt more pressure. Cause they’ve seen me suck, they’ve seen me at my worst. It makes me feel a lot of gratitude but also a lot of nerves.”
She may have been nervous on the inside, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by watching her perform. Clad in a dark beige trenchcoat that just barely draped above her black Nike high tops, a brown beanie, and a fiercely stylish pair of orange-tinted, nighttime driving glasses that she announced as her “psycho glasses,” Duffy stood poised at the mic as if she was granted the position by some divine force. Before playing a single note, she sternly asked for everyone’s undivided attention and bluntly addressed anyone in the packed space who was planning on conversing during her performance to please take it upstairs. Every eye in the room silently darted from side-to-side, scoping for anyone who dared scurry out or even mutter in an act of near-sacrilege. No one moved, so Duffy nodded contently and began.
Unlike her solo appearance in November, this time she was accompanied on stage by a rhythm section that included the vocalist of The Yawns taking over kit duties, as well as crooning out some tasteful harmonies, and her bassist friend named Kevin (the original owner of her nifty shades). This lineup gave Duffy’s breezy compositions the waft they needed to effectively seep through the dense crowd and engulf the entirety of the room. Although her music is characteristically lethargic, it doesn’t suffer from the “sleepy” effect that other artists of her ilk sometimes deal with while playing out. Her vocals are subdued and soothing, but there’s something about her presence and playing style that’s inexplicably entrancing. Uber-subtle, cloud-like melodies are laced into the fabric of her songs, strung parallel to the gentle yet driving grooves that are the aural equivalent to minty chewing gum; they don’t require effort and concentration, but you’re unable to tune them out until you’ve soaked up every last bit of flavor.
“Playing solo I was nervous . . . I think a lot of people had expectations because the last time Hand Habits was here and playing we were like a loud rock band,” Duffy said. She said that she got the impression after her November performance that people were surprised by how quiet and soft the latest incarnation of the project had become. This time she felt differently. “The arrangements can expand when there’s more people. We’ve been on tour so we’ve fallen into a nice groove for about a week now and I really like how the songs are developing with this arrangement.”
However, despite the added instruments, Duffy’s virtuosic guitar playing is still the main focus. Her songs are so masterfully weaved together that it’s difficult to recognize the sheer number of layers and intricacies that Duffy puts forth. She had a relatively modest set of guitar pedals beside her feet during the show, but she was effortlessly tapping upon them throughout each song; making particular use of a large looping pedal that allowed her to record for a few measures and then add fits of shreddy noodling atop her light strums. If you closed your eyes, you could easily picture three Duffies up there, plucking away in near-perfect harmony.
The performance was spectacular and Duffy exuded a deadpan delivery of quick-witted humor in between sets as she engaged the crowd with a quirky card game she pulled out of her coat pocket. Each card posed a specific moral dilemma and Duffy invited random contestants from the crowd—some of which were loved ones, others strangers—to give their answers. Throughout the entire performance she appeared confident and unwavering, though clearly grateful and sincerely appreciative of the crowd before her.
However, afterward she revealed, “it was really hard not to cry.” She said it’s more difficult for her to play in front of people she knows rather than a group of total strangers, which amounted to a slew of overwhelming feelings. “Some of the songs are about people that were really important to me when I was here, so that was really emotional. Made me kind of well up a little bit.”
Although she’s currently based way out in Los Angeles, she says she thinks about Albany often and is thrilled to see the small community that birthed her so full of life.
“I definitely learned a lot about challenging myself being here,” she said. “I really miss the support. That hometown feel of support where everyone’s like ‘oh hell yeah, we’re gonna go to the show because you’re playing it.’ Or, ‘oh that’s your friend? Well we’ll go do that.’ It made me appreciate and realize the importance of that sort of community feel.”
“The last two times I’ve come here it’s seemed like it’s thriving and I think a lot of that has to do with Doug [Dulgarian] and Dan [Maddalone],” she said, referring to two Albany stalwarts who have been working tirelessly to constantly put on shows and provide platforms for up-and-coming artists. “I saw Dan and Doug tonight going nuts to make sure everything went right, and I think that’s what a community needs.”
Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) was released last week via Woodsist Records; Hand Habits will continue their stint down the East Coast through Feb. 22.