There is perhaps no major indie musician in America who shuns the spotlight more zealously than Grouper, aka Oregon guitarist/vocalist Liz Harris. Walking silently on stage to her workstation and without saying a word, she performs in the dark, like British electronic music duo Autechre. The main difference between Grouper and Autechre, however, is that the former always comes with scintillating visuals that complement its music. On Tuesday night, Japanese artist Takashi Makino provided mostly abstract imagery that rhymed beautifully with Grouper’s minimalist, elemental background music. The show opened a portal to a natural universe that converted the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall into an audio-visual womb steeped in subtle yet profound emotions.
Grouper’s set began with “Alien Observer,” whose tinkling, distant, forlorn vocals coalesced into a soundfield as desolate as anything Burial would sample. You could feel your spine tingling in slow motion. Almost every texture emanating from Grouper’s guitar, effects boxes, and vocals seemed designed to trigger ASMR; imagine a feather methodically brushing an eyelash. “I’m Clean Now” ventured into a blissful drowsiness, inducing a shimmering calm that we traumatized American citizens could really use; it was like sound therapy in plush auditorium seats as world-class cinematic art shimmered, fizzled, and dissolved on the big screen. (While chatting with Grouper’s sound manager after the show, I learned that it’s not uncommon for audiences to cry during his sets.)
One of the early highlights was “False Horizon,” which built to a shaky crescendo that evoked the most heavy-metal moment of the night…then morphed into a stark ballad of loneliness. deep (“Living Room”) that reminded me of the bumper sticker that Grouper’s label, Kranky Records, released in the 1990s: LET A FROWN BE YOUR UMBRELLA. In “Headache,” Harris’ über-diaphanous vocals were whipped into a froth by clusters of guitar turbulence, creating a resonant Strum und Klang.
Between each appropriate song, field recordings of birdsong, water flowing, thunder, rain, etc. on cassette tapes would serve as connective tissue, manifesting Harris’ deep connection to nature. These interstitial bits contributed to the sense of an ongoing healing ceremony, and they felt incredible as springboards from which Harris would summon angel-chorus drones and ballads comprised of vapor and ectoplasm.
The last minutes of the set after “Disordered Minds” from Grouper’s latest album, Shadow, consisted of an underground rumble, an uproar mostly at odds with the rest of the performance. Then Harris abruptly cut the sound, snapping us out of our reverie/trance states. She quietly said “Thank you” and left the stage quickly and unceremoniously, an anti-diva until the very end.
01 Alien Observer
02 I’m clean now [Paradise Valley, 2016]
03 False Horizon
04 Living room
05 Headaches [Paradise Valley]
07 Messy Minds
Opening for Grouper was Washington’s own Black Belt Eagle Scout (Indigenous musician Katherine Paul), who sounded like a die-hard headliner. Playing without his band for the date, Paul – who grew up on the Swinomish reservation in Skagit County – played an oddly angled bone-colored electric guitar and sat cross-legged near the front of the stage. She easily dragged you into her world of singer-songwriter faith-based introspection with songs about friendship, love, ancestry, the wonders of nature, and the goddesses of the sea.
The bulk of Paul’s seven-song set inhabited the tenderest, most vulnerable keys, crowned by beautiful guitar whispers. Wistful ballads with well-modulated coos dominated the performance, but the last two tracks entered stormier territory. The penultimate, “Sam, a Dream,” swelled into what passed for an anthem in this delicately discouraged set; it was his equivalent of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane”.