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Grouper @ The ArtsCenter (Concert Review by Thejas V.)

Being at a Liz Harris show can almost seem like an imaginary experience. The singer/songwriter and ambient artist has been making music under her Grouper project for nearly two decades, yet she generally maintains a low profile—looking her up, you’d be hard-pressed to find any internet presence besides her infrequently-updated Instagram account and Bandcamp page. In a way, it feels complementary to the ‘distant’ soundscapes across much of her music, a recent example being the reverb-heavy, distorted vocals found across a few songs on her 2021 album Shade. 

So when I had the opportunity to see her live last Tuesday, it felt a bit like being in the presence of a celestial being. As I made my way to a seat inside The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC, despite being unfamiliar with the venue there was an immediate coziness in its dimly lit, intimate auditorium setting. Grouper was preceded by local multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles, whose performance seemed to be a mix of drone and Americana, playing a repetitive but subtly shifting piece on his banjo over a droning note, feeling almost ominous but enthralling nonetheless. It was an incredibly minimal presentation, an unfamiliar sight as someone who has only been to pop and hip-hop shows, yet one that prepared the audience for the slow-paced nature of the rest of the show.    

At around 9:00 PM, Harris  came out to the sound of applause and loud cheers, which was somewhat startling given the relative silence of the college-aged audience up till then. For the next hour, she put on a wonderfully hypnotic show, performing a seamless mix of songs across her discography. Like Bowles, her stage setup was fairly limited, only switching between a guitar, keyboard, or a tape loop machine that played sounds from natural settings. Her vocals and instruments all had a heavy reverb effect, something characteristic of her music, but I never thought that I’d enjoy it so much in a live setting. Her vocals felt even more hauntingly beautiful than their studio versions, especially when she was performing classic songs like ‘Alien Observer,’ as her vocals, reverb-heavy to the point of indiscernibility, sounded like she was lulling us into a trance, immersing me and the rest of the audience into her world,. It also definitely did not help change my assumption that I was dreaming. 

    Accompanying her performance were films from Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino. The visuals ranged from grainy, zoomed-in shots of plants and rivers, as well as one scene of different hands continually hand painting a circle. There was something strangely mesmerizing about these loops which complemented the soft melancholy of her mellow guitar-playing and lush vocal harmonies. The grainy shots reminded me of my childhood pictures, which was perfect because Grouper’s music often evokes nostalgic feelings for me. 

    Towards the end of the concert, Harris delivered a moving performance of ‘Headache,’ with her vocals reaching their loudest of the whole night. She ended the show on an abrupt note, playing a drone-like piece filled with spoken word and natural samples that ended in a high pitched noise. While she did not speak during the show, she delivered a gesture of thanks as everyone was clapping and quickly made her way backstage. There’s an interview with Pitchfork where she states that while she likes that people enjoy her music, she isn’t making her music with an audience in mind. While other shows I’ve been to usually had a solid level of artist-fan interaction, Harris’ show felt like an art piece of its own, as her music paired with the visuals felt like they could be interpreted in different ways. In my opinion, Grouper’s show wonderfully explored themes of distance and nostalgia, and I would definitely recommend going to anyone who is remotely a fan of her music. 

 

Listen to Daughter by Raum (Liz Harris and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma) at https://grouper.bandcamp.com/album/daughter

 

Listen to her 2021 album Shade at https://grouper.bandcamp.com/album/shade

 

Review and Photo by Thejas V.

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