Charlie Hickey’s onstage persona is nothing short of endearing and charismatic. In fact, it’s not really fair to call it a persona at all. Instead, it feels at some points like a conversation with an old friend, making the barrier that normally separates artist and audience notably absent. On his first tour opening for frothy indie rock powerhouse Samia on Feb. 10, Hickey shines in the way he plays music straight from the heart, no strings attached — save for the six on his acoustic guitar.
Filling San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall with dazzling warmth, Hickey opened his set with a paired-down, unadorned rendition of Samia’s “Winnebago” off her 2020 LP The Baby. The song — which Samia described in an interview as “trying to admit all of the times I’d cried in the bathroom and come out ready to party” — is a little bit melancholic. It’s even a little bit “upsetting,” as Samia would later characterize it when she played the song later in the evening; it’s a quality of her music that doesn’t impede on its enjoyability, but rather forges authentic connections with the audience.
Artifice, disaffection and party-induced ennui similarly weave their way into Hickey’s single “Ten Feet Tall.” It’s in part this lyrical parallelism and the way their mutual vulnerable, introspective tenor organically bleed together that make Hickey and Samia such a captivating onstage pairing. It’s doubtlessly something each of them is aware of: “Hi, my name is Samia,” Hickey joked after he played “Winnebago.”
It doesn’t take an especially keen observer to notice the appeal of artists such as Hickey to a generation rattled by pandemic. A cursory glance around the Doc-Marten-print-covered floor of Great American Music Hall reveals just how resonant unflinching and authentic musical accounts of late adolescence and early adulthood can be.
Addressing the Gen Z psyche directly, Hickey next played an unreleased song “about nothing happening in life at all,” a line that elicited a brief, cathartic giggle. Whimsical lyrics and effervescent guitar licks lent an air of aspirational sociality that has perhaps only recently appeared on the horizon. Hickey’s performance spoke to that feeling of wanting to recapture the good ol’ days, those drives “through the old neighborhood looking through people’s windows.”
When Hickey introduced “Two Haunted Houses,” he remarked that it was a song “about getting lost in Santa Clarita.” It’s remarks such as this one that encapsulate the central conceit of Hickey’s music: small-scale and unassuming in form, but anchored to something deeper. In the case of “Two Haunted Houses,” that something deeper takes shape through exquisitely porous lyricism. The song begins with “Wandering Turnerman Road tonight/ I’m feeling like a newborn child tonight,” a refrain that recalls Samia’s poignant identification with the eponymous “baby” of her debut record.
Hickey displayed the evolution of his exemplary lyricism on the second unreleased song he played, a love song that blends identifiability with sharp, palpable beauty — then renders something truly transcendent through vocals dripping with ardor. It’s undoubtedly even more reason to get excited for what’s yet to come in Hickey’s career. When asked by an audience member when the album was coming out, he replied elusively, “Album? Jesus!”
Joining Hickey onstage for “Ten Feet Tall,” Samia emerged clad in a peach-toned ’80s prom dress. In contrast to the minimalism of the recorded version, the set’s closer was amped up by the addition of lively bass and bright harmonies. Functioning not only as a buoyant bookend to a heartfelt set, the song opened the floodgates to the high-octane Samia performance to come.
Hickey undeniably has an understanding of the quotidian and nostalgia’s ineffable capability of revealing what’s most true. This understanding is wrought through intense attention to specifics and tangibilities: It’s precisely what kind of music is needed in our current moment.
“Maybe real life is better,” Hickey sang in the second verse of “Ten Feet Tall.” Standing on the floor of the theater, bathed in the remnants of blue stage lights, it certainly began to feel that way.