Holly Humberstone glazes Regency Ballroom with bittersweet sincerity

Photo of Holly Humberstone
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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Holly Humberstone may be falling asleep at the wheel, but pulses can drive from here.

During her half-hour set opening for girl in red on April 12, the rising British pop star steered away from truisms and theatrics. She fostered intimacy through her nebulous introspection, infusing San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom with subdued allure.

Humberstone’s fear of overthinking foamed over in her dreamy opener “Overkill,” her lyrics fastening overwhelming hesitance to a racing heart. Although Humberstone’s transfixing stage presence was anything but tentative, this narrative of insecurity bled into her next song, “Please Don’t Leave Just Yet.”

Sundry equipment cluttered the stage, and Humberstone floated over to each instrument like an eager butterfly. As her pensive lyrics etched themselves into Matty Healy’s hollow, echoey production, Humberstone swayed standing at a keyboard before moving to a seated position at another set of keys.

At times, welcome spotlights of blues and pinks brightened the stage, but Humberstone was more often cloaked in dim, coppery light. She melted into the stage’s shadows with wistfulness, recalling the blurred cover artworks of her latest singles. Humberstone’s quietness isn’t to be mistaken for timidity — glossed in friendly modesty, her poise was mesmerizing.

Stepping to the mic at center stage with her electric guitar, the artist surprised her audience by performing an unreleased song titled “Sleep Tight.” In true Holly Humberstone fashion, the sorrowful song simmered with anticipation until it frothed with a depurative end. Open and sincere, Humberstone followed her performance with a relevant discussion of the importance of mental health.

The singer spoke briefly about her childhood in the English countryside after performing her earnest appeal “Deep End.” Describing her recent move to London as “s— scary,” she dove into her forlorn single “London Is Lonely.” Although she sang about struggling with distance, Humberstone ironically looked most at home here on the piano. As she repeatedly lilted “I’m lonely without you” at the song’s climax, the reiteration felt especially heartbreaking as her band kicked in with full lush production.

Red and white lights glided across the stage for Humberstone’s rendition of “Scarlett,” which centers around her best friend’s breakup. While most of Humberstone’s songs vocally matched their recorded versions, many songs shifted production slightly — for “Scarlett,” particularly, the reimaginations of gritty synth and buzzing guitars were more striking than ever. With white ribbed lighting swirling around the stage, Humberstone’s vibey keyboard solo helped elevate the set’s energy.

Beyond her subdued airy vocals, part of her charm was derived from her humble gratitude. Her soft-spoken affection was convivial and warm: After nearly every song, she’d chirp a sweet “Thank you!” or speak kindly of the city (only Humberstone is allowed to say “San Fran”). 

Crimson faded to flushed pink for a stripped rendition of “Falling Asleep At The Wheel” toward the end of the set. Humberstone’s voice cut above the restless crowd’s chatter, rightfully muffling conversations and tempering the atmosphere.

Milky golden light illuminated Humberstone during her desolate yet upbeat closer “The Walls Are Way Too Thin.” Reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ composed ease, the song’s background chord took on a softer timbre than in the recorded version, lending itself to a paradoxically anticipatory tranquility that resonated stronger live.

Though Humberstone’s curls often obscured the front of her black long sleeve, the closest concertgoers could catch a glimpse of her shirt reading “Hysteric Mind.” Yet, hysteria is the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of Humberstone’s set. Her concert was anything but frenzied or flashy; instead, gentle delirium guided San Francisco as Humberstone softly sorted through streams of consciousness.

Spilling her secrets to San Francisco with distilled transparency, Humberstone’s candid contemplations lifted weights off heavy hearts. Moments of hushed mellowness would swell with sharp emotional intensity, then melt back into a soft afterthought. Enchanting with her profound, thoughtful set, Humberstone left her crowd just a little bit lighter — and then she vanished, a dream dissolving into morning air.

Taila Lee is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @tailalee.