There’s an oft-made argument that in the UK, London acts as a kind of cultural black hole, swallowing up events and propagating the idea that if you’re not 'making it' there, you might as well not exist. The pull is strong, and understandably so; it would be hard to imagine an internationally acclaimed festival featuring more than a hundred acts, spread over 13 venues, being held anywhere else. But they do things differently in the Netherlands, and despite Utrecht being a mere 20 minutes by (quick and efficient) train from Amsterdam, Le Guess Who? remains deeply rooted in this pretty University town of 300,00 people.
Wander the small, cobbled streets around the Dom Tower, or get lost in the alleys around the University and Pieterskerk, and you’re struck by the charm of the place; there’s a thriving community of boutiques and independent shops that lend a distinctly genteel character to the town. This unhurried, unfussy quality is evident in the festival itself; despite its size – it’s grown from having just 800 attendees in 2007 to over 4,000 per day this year – it remains accessible in a way that events of this size rarely are. Save for an overwhelming number of people attempting to witness Follakzoid late on Sunday afternoon, we encounter no queues, and moving between venues – and getting in – is as pain free as possible. Even the line-up reflects this independent spirit and a rejection of the mainstream; there’s no landfill indie or clunking dad rock clogging up the schedule, and as co-founder Bob van Heur told DiS recently, many of the artists are chosen precisely because they’re under-represented, esoteric, or occupy niche genres.
As such, deciding exactly who to see is a difficult task. There are a few obvious big names - Deerhunter, Julia Holter, Sunn O))) - but beyond that it can be hard navigating the timetable; tips from friends and some pre-festival investigation are fairly essential. Even then, more than once DiS overhears some fellow journalists describing sets we missed in hushed tones, Kamasi Washington and DJ Paypal being prominent in such discussions, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to catch twenty minutes of a few sets instead of staying the course at one. But these are the nice kind of problems to have at a festival, and those acts we did see cemented Le Guess Who’s reputation as one of mainland Europe’s finest urban festivals.
Don’t Bite The Hand That Feeds
Within five minutes of arriving at the main Tivoli Vredenburg venue on Thursday night I’ve picked up my passes, dropped off a coat and bag at the free cloakroom, logged into the (working and free) wi-fi, grabbed a chilled craft beer – which is served in the bottle and costs only €4 – and settled into a comfy, upholstered chair to catch the last 20 minutes of German indie Kings The Notwist. Reading that, regular attendees of gigs and festivals in the UK could be forgiven the odd pang of jealousy, dealing as they frequently do with endless lines, overpriced watery drinks in plastic cups, and general contempt when it comes to issues of efficiency or comfort. But they do things differently on the continent, and there’s a sense that bands, and paying customers, come before profit. In return, attendees display an urbane, restrained revelry; no-one is sick on the escalators, no glasses are thrown or unceremoniously smashed.
There’s barely any need for security at all, and even the main room, the Ronda, is bereft of the muscled heavies so frequently hired to glower menacingly from the front of the stage. And the reason is simple; they’re just not required. Even at their most raucous, crowds here are surprisingly controlled; for all the moshing and stage-diving at Wavves and Ho99o9, there’s a joy in place of the tense aggression usually found in such situations, and anyone unwittingly caught up in the chaos is gently ushered to safety. As with most things these days, the impression left is that the UK lags way behind.
Get Off The Beaten Track
Much like the intrepid souls who ignore Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage to spend four days lost in Shangri-La, Le Guess Who? rewards those possessed of a sense of adventure. There’s plenty to discover on the fringes; from Marissa Nadler in LE:EN, to Hop Along in the wood-clad basement of Moira, one of the quaintest little stages you’re ever likely to see, getting out and about is all part of the fun here. One of the venues used, Acu, describes itself as a politically active, left-wing, cultural centre that, in between underground gigs and events, doles out advice to would-be squatters and protesters. Both Grooms and Younghusband play here on the Friday, a special “Introducing” night designed to champion the independent voices that struggle to get heard.
Le Mini Who goes one further; on Saturday afternoon, cafes, shops, and restaurants are turned into impromptu venues where simple PA systems are hastily erected, and small crowds jostle for position to catch twenty-minute sets. Wandering around Voorstraat, a mini East Village / Shoreditch hybrid, we dip in and out of several gigs. Iguana Death Cult, a hyped local band, deal in fuzzed-out, reverb-soaked rock’n’roll, and attack their set with youthful gusto. But Band of the Day, and quite possibly the whole weekend, are Discohen, a five-piece who cover disco classics – ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Like A Virgin’, ‘I Was Made for Loving You’ – in the style of Leonard Cohen. As you do. It might sound like a gimmick, but the results are surprisingly effective; singer Pim van de Werken’s deep growl is an uncanny imitation, while his bandmates – dressed like extras from Tony Montana’s wedding – skip round some clever, inventive arrangements. It’s a wonderful 40 minutes, and bigger stages surely await.
Loud Is The New Loud
The warning posters plastered around Tivoli and the numerous people handing out ear plugs make it clear; Sunn O))) is going to be loud. Just how loud it actually is though comes as something of a surprise; I last about ten minutes before having to use those plugs, another five and the very marrow in my bones begins to shake, so deep are the waves of sound flowing out from the stage. There are eight Marshall stacks on stage, impressive considering tonight there’s just two guitars, a violin, and keyboard, and the semi-circle set up – along with the dark, hooded robes worn by all – lends the scene a primitive, pagan air. They are, of course, magnificent. At times it’s like an exercise in pure noise, as the drones and guitar tones throb and pulse – this is music with a physical presence, that you feel as much as hear. Stephen O’Malley is not the only one to bring the noise either; there are plenty other acts who play as if attempting to discover the limits of the soundsystem. Blanck Mass’s scorching, textured set draws heavily on this year’s Dumb Flesh and shows Benjamin John Power’s populist side – the material might be challenging at times, but it’s eminently danceable too, ‘Dead Format’ proving to be a particular highlight. METZ are as punishingly brutal as always, sending one the most densely packed crowds of the weekend into a frenzy, but they pale in comparison to the sonic chaos wrought by Lightning Bolt. Wearing his trademark wrestling mask, drummer and vocalist Brian Chippendale attacks his kit like a man possessed, his howls and shouts adding an unholy edge to their aggressive noise rock. It’s watched by, among others, a bemused looking Josh T Pearson, who stands stock still by the bar, staring intently at the madness.
Get the acoustics right, and a church can be one of the most beautiful places to see live music. For the first time, Le Guess Who? is using Janskerk, a gorgeous Romanesque church that has existed here since 1040, and the high columns and spectacular nave behind the alter form the perfect backdrop for the artists hand picked to play here. Unfortunately, we miss Julia Holter, but we’re front and central for both Josh T Pearson and Majical Cloudz. Their music is perfectly suited to this setting; spiritual, yearning, touching something deep in your soul. There are tears, and the sadness at the heart of what both artists do seems to settle over the gathered like a fog. Both sets are among the most beautiful I’ve ever witnessed, simple, elegant songs imbued with a rare emotional heft; thinking about them even now gives me the chills. This will surely be repeated next year.
Living Up To Expectations
While the calibre of artist invited is uniformly high, there are a few artists who obviously act as a bigger draw than others. But sitting atop the bill, you have to deliver, and a few of the more illustrious names fail to sparkle. Post-punk stalwarts The Pop Group remain as abrasive as ever – and musically, as tight as they’ve ever been – but it’s curious to see singer Mark Stewart still reading his lyrics from a music stand. Faust have always been challenging and avant garde, but there are more than a few quizzical glances as they set up with three women knitting – yes, knitting – at the front of the stage throughout their set. They also employ bubble wrap as an “instrument” at one point, and while it’s always good to confound expectations, there’s a sense they’ve somehow lost sight of the music in their desire to be different.
Even a few of the indie stalwarts fail to reach the heights they’re capable of, being good rather than great. Ariel Pink baffles as much as he delights, parked behind a strange, Perspex shield, but then he’s always been hit-or-miss live; more perplexing are the travails of Deerhunter and Ought. The latter struggle with a murky sound in Pandora, and while it’s natural for them to draw most of their material from this year’s excellent Sun Coming Down, they inexplicably neglect to play ‘Today More Than Any Other Day’ and ‘Habit’ from their stunning debut. Bradford Cox meanwhile spends a lot of time wrestling with guitars and tunings; “Does this guitar sound like shit Lockett?” he asks at one point, having broken a string and being distinctly unimpressed with the replacement instrument he’s given. It doesn’t, but their set still fails to impress; we get a rousing ‘Revival’, but no ‘Snakeskin’, the lead (and best) single from their latest record Fading Frontier. And all this is after a flat, uninspiring turn under his alter ego Atlas Sound that he spends slumped over some keyboards, dressed like an indie Crocodile Dundee.
Instead, it’s two newcomers who light the fuse of musical magic, and play with the sort of unhinged abandon that lives long in the memory. EEK feat. Islam Chipsy cement their reputation as one of the finest party bands around with a ridiculously fun set that’s impossible not to dance too. Flanked by two drummers, one of whom occasionally resorts to bashing away with his hands, Chipsy rattles through his high octane version of electro chaabi wearing a grin like the Cheshire Cat. But the true scene stealers are Ho99o9, who bring their punk rock / hip hop hybrid to the confines of Ekko late on Saturday night. Sweaty, dangerous, and enthralling, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from the hyped duo. They prowl the stage, spitting rhymes and physically goading each other on, Eaddy going from wearing a wedding dress to fangs to strange, sparkling, bug-eye goggles. They finish absolutely drenched, virtually naked, but with a look of satisfaction that’s matched by those wandering back out into the cold night air. Such discoveries and moments of magic are what make Le Guess Who? such a special event on the European festival circuit.