Grouper in Chicago

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  • In the northwest corner of Bohemian National Cemetery, which occupies more than 120 acres on the north side of Chicago, is a wide, squat mausoleum. Extending from that structure to the edge of the property are lawns as yet unpopulated by the dead. It's this area that Empty Bottle, the venerable punk and indie rock club on Western Avenue, uses to host Beyond The Gate, its summertime concert series. Beyond The Gate brings experimental rock and electronic music to the cemetery for a nighttime show on or around a full moon or summer solstice, making use of a large, well-manicured green space that would otherwise be hard to find in the city. Entering the spacious grounds from the north for last Saturday's event, I was first struck by the size of the mausoleum and how it related to its surroundings. Quietly imposing on its own as a background for the stage, the structure itself was like a platform for a big blue sky crossed with wispy clouds and jet contrails. Simulation, AKA local producers Laura Callier and Whitney Johnson, opened, conjuring a mix of meditative kosmische and trippy techno. Another Chicago group, Good Willsmith, then hit the stage, which was festooned with inflatable bananas and a green alien for the occasion. Their music, built with guitar, synths, drum loops, vocals and effects, was raw, trippy, and in its better moments, weirdly entrancing. Next was the concert's most peculiar booking: Breadwoman. A project of LA artist Anna Homler that dates back to the '80s, Breadwoman has been the subject of renewed interest recently. This show saw Homler joined by Steven Warwick, AKA Heatsick, and a 'dancer' who assumed the titular identity, a slow-moving mystic who, as the story goes, is made of bread. Beginning on a tribal whistle, the performance brought Homler's wordless vocalese together with ambient bass drones, melancholic melodies, sparse hand percussion and a few less-expected sound sources—did I notice a dog's squeaky toy and a greeting card with an audio chip?—while Breadwoman lurked across the stage, wielding loaves of bread and flour sifters like sacred implements. But there was never really any climax or revelation, and even given its avant-garde edge, the set was ultimately too flat to leave much of an impression. As Grouper started, the last remnants of a blue sky were giving way to a night that flickered with fireflies. A nearly full moon perched itself more conspicuously over one's right shoulder and subtle psychedelic projections began to play across the walls and columns of the mausoleum. Liz Harris has a stage presence that seems part guru and part ghost, and thus wholly appropriate for the setting: enveloped in soft blue light, she sits cross-legged, armed with an electric guitar, a mixing board and a modest set of pedals and tape players, moving only to reach for those tools. Opening with the brittle, shimmering instrumental "Vanishing Point," she'd spend a little over an hour sharing her ethereal waves of sound. On occasion, Harris's voice stood out, like on "Clearing," a song from her 2014 LP Ruins, reconfigured here for guitar. But most of the time, it was barely decipherable—a sense of humanity adrift in a thick, introspective haze. To finish, she put aside the guitar and hunched over the rest of her gear to draw out a collage of chiming tones and softly rumbling thunderstorms. A final roaring crescendo, likely to have awoken any attendees who dozed off on this land reserved for the eternally asleep, signaled the end of a wonderfully unique gathering.