Magik*Magik at the Swedish American Hall, by Ian Young
Magik*Magik (photo: Ian Young)

“It’s a miracle when you get to play with the same people for a long time, especially in San Francisco,” said Magik*Magik’s Minna Choi, onstage at the Swedish American Music Hall last Friday night. Surrounded by her orchestra and band, and cheered on by an audience of loving community, Choi continued: “We’re still fighting the good fight, and we’re sticking around.”

In a weekend plagued by tragedy — Oakland’s fatal Ghost Ship fire occurred just a few minutes after Magik*Magik finished their set on Friday — Choi’s words became a comforting reminder of how deep the music community in the Bay Area runs. In fact, just about everyone onstage last Friday has been playing in the Bay Area for over a decade.

Formed in 2008, Choi’s Magik*Magik orchestra developed out of The San Francisco Conservatory, where Chou graduated in 2009. Through the years, the orchestra has arranged numbers for big-name artists like Sting and Death Cab for Cutie, and performed as the house band for San Francisco’s own Tiny Telephone Studios. Along with its prolific output, the orchestra has functioned as an incubator for Choi, who released her first solo album in October.

The album is a marvelous blend of electronic construction and orchestral arrangement, songs that, although deeply rooted in modern sound development, feel timeless in their intricate construction. Through each listen of Magik*Magik, something new emerges, unfolding from the depths of instrumentation found on the album.

Above all, Magik*Magik proves just how talented Choi is — on each song, her lyrics, composition, and keyboard work are seamless. In terms of vocal performance, too, Choi’s voice shines. Her singing is remarkably warm — smooth and inviting; almost honeyed. Live, Choi works a striking balance between singer, musician, and conductor by conducting her orchestral quartet even as she sings and plays keyboard. It was a remarkable and energetic performance; swaying, Choi kept one hand on the microphone, the other somehow on both the keyboard and moving through the air to direct her orchestra.

Onstage, it was clear that the musicians had deep ties, both to each other and to the SF music scene. Those ties were highlighted onstage as Choi gave thanks to John Vanderslice of Tiny Telephone, for “always believing in the orchestra and always believing in me. Many of the musicians on this stage owe a lot to you.” The audience, too, felt familial. The Swedish American Hall always draws a crowd that's varied in age, but on Friday that crowd felt particularly diverse. After the show friends and family, who seemingly had been following the orchestra for years, mingled and laughed.

Its rare I feel that Swedish American Hall’s uniquely comfortable space is used to its full potential, but on Friday, that space couldn’t feel any more homey. In the audience’s dim light, I kept thinking of a cat preparing to fall asleep — the way it sleepily blinks its eyes and kneads its paws. That feeling — of preparing for comfortable dreams — amplified as Magik*Magik played their last song, an alternate version of “Sinking Home,” with stripped down instrumentals and three vocalists. “Like when a restaurant offers its special two ways,” Choi said, “we have a song that we do two ways [...] close your eyes, and relax. This song is going to send you out into the night with a warm fuzzy feeling, and you’re going to dream good dreams, because it is very soothing.”

After Oakland’s devastating fire, those good dreams are needed. It's tough, when tragedy hits close to home, to let go of gnawing fear and anxiety and to feel soothed. Magik*Magik’s set on Friday at Swedish American Hall served as a reminder that, not only can music comfort and connect, but that community built through art and music is strong, durable, and flexible.

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