Review: Le Guess Who? Festival 2017
When you host a music festival in a city so clearly invested in music and the arts such as Utrecht, you know you’re in for a real treat…
While most music festivals have a token record stall, with Le Guess Who? in Utrecht you get an entire record fair to boot – in fact, you get the biggest record fair in the world – Record Planet. More on this here.
This one is not for the faint hearted – as you walk into a 2,500sq ft warehouse with over 500 record sellers from as far away as the US and Spain, you’re greeted by a sea of vinyl. €1 vinyl, rare vinyl, records by the artists playing at Le Guess Who? across the road, endless crates records by the greats – by Bowie, Springsteen and Neil Young. All game plans go out of the window as you get sucked into investing in your next shelve or ten’s worth of vinyl.
November is one of those months where you’re usually battening down the hatches for winter and are facing at least another 6 month wait for your next big musical fix. That’s where this festival comes into its own.
You can pick up fights with EasyJet from the UK’s airports, including Bristol, London Gatwick and Manchester to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport from as little as £50 return and from there there’s a direct 40 min train to Utrecht for less than £10.
There’s no camping – you get an apartment, hotel or hostel, starting at £20 per night if booked in advance – and most of the music is in an incredible custom built venue meaning there’s no need to bemoan a little drizzle.
The impressive Tivoli Vrendenburg was made for hosting multi-stage, diverse musical line-ups such as this and just can’t be faulted. Five brilliant live music spaces play host to an impressive range of artists from across the world.
Thursday night’s proceedings opened with curator Jerusalem In My Heart. A fiery confrontation between the Lebanese artist and an antagonistic member of the audience who had turned up waving an Israeli flag. “Fuck your flag, that’s no flag; you can fuck off now – get out,” spat Radwan Ghazi Moumneh showing just how deep the feeling runs. The guy left and so began the ear-piercing Jerusalem In My Heart set.
For those wanting something a little easier on the eardrums (and nose hairs), Sun Kil Moon was delivering his spoken word melancholia with small injections of politics and humour in the beautiful setting of the Grote Zaal (Great Hall); monotone in places, it felt more like a stream of consciousness than anything pre-planned at times. A solid set but lacking in the pace of the other Thursday night acts.
Siberia’s Yat-Kha raised the tempo with some deep throat singing that would’ve made even the most accomplished thrash metal singer envious; compliment this with the biggest gong you’ve ever seen and a brilliant mystical instrument that looks like a fossilised seahorse and you have yourself some compelling music.
In keeping with the name, Le Guess Who? has introduced some secret sets which aren’t revealed until you’re there invested in them. The first one was delivered by Amadou & Mariam with subsequent sets from Princess Nokia and Gruff Rhys – true to the brilliantly diverse nature of the entire line-up.
The thing which Le Guess Who does well is representation and inclusivity. Where many festivals couldn’t give a toss how many women or non-white acts are on the bill, and others pay lip service to it, this festival has it running through its veins.
It’s not contrived and it’s not unwarranted. The sheer range of music offer here is unrivalled and it’s impossible not to come away with a cache of new sounds to explore.
K A R Y Y N played her fifth ever gig at this year’s Le Guess Who? and attracted an impressive crowd- wowing us with her Björk-esque vocals. Opening her set on her knees with nothing but her vocals to entertain, she captivated us from the off.
Not all the music is confined to the Tivoli Vredenburg (though it would probably work just as well if it were), but there are another dozen venues involved, each with their own USP. These range from churches and warehouses to nightclubs and theatres and are all within half an hour’s walk (or a 10 minute cycle) of the main venue.
De Helling club is where some of the louder guitar music shone – including Liars, Metz and Black Lips. But the highlight here was The Bug versus Dylan Carlson of Earth who’s body shaking soundscapes captured the entire club.
Jacobikerk, a working church in the centre of the city, provided the perfect backdrop for an extremely emotional set from Mount Eerie. This ticketed event proved a real one-off, a special moment where Phil Elverum invites you into his world – a world of love, loss, grief and remembrance since losing his wife Genevieve, mother of his baby girl, last year. Frank, devastating lyrics brought to life by subtle strings. The tears and love flowing in equal measure.
It’s hard to know where to go from that gig, and with a brief sojourn into the Prurient set we find ourselves at Moor Mother for a slap in the face set of angsty powerful protest punk. As a white person you’re left feeling wholly uncomfortable and ashamed at your heritage and, tbh, that’s exactly how you should feel. Her performance is incredible, her lyrics commanding and the music captivating.
Seattle’s Jesy Fortino performs as Tiny Vipers in what can only be described as a working warehouse, transformed into an underground venue for Le Guess Who? festival. Aside from a few sound issues with the kit cutting out, it’s an intimate and dreamy set. On Sunday, this venue – Pastoefabriek – plays host to a mind-numbing 12 hour drone set. Pasteofabriek is also close to Le:en where they have some film screenings and the best Japanese food and whisky in town. Top tip.
Bosnian solo accordion player Mario Batkovic mesmerises an entire theatre with his Phillip Glass-esque sounds. Just him and his instrument sat on a stage upon a stage, creating sounds which, if you close your eyes, should be coming from an entire orchestra. He taps and bends his accordion with perfect timing and toning to take us on a film score style journey. Inspired.
Bluesy Americana musician Kevin Morby pulls in a big crowd in the Grote Zaal and launches into a toe-tapping set – the highlight of which proved to be the title track of his album Harlem River. Channeling the best of Jack White and Bob Dylan he owns the stage with his slick moves and solid guitar playing. His band are just as worthy of a mention, particularly guitarist Meg Duffy.
The undisputed highlight for many, though, came in the form of master of the lo-fi synth sounds John Maus. After a lengthy set-up (the result of sound problems at previous sets), he saunters on stage and immediately transforms into a world-class performer. Shaking, headbanding and whacking himself through his set of thought-provoking electro-pop. From the laid back Through The Skies For You to the upbeat Teenage Witch, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the stage and keep your body still.
Sunday has fewer bands and is a tad quieter as people head back home for work on Monday.
With a dinner-time start, you get the day to recover and/or explore the city of Utrecht, which is well worth doing – like a laid back Amsterdam without stag and hen do hell and that seedy vibe. Cafe and bar-lined canals, beautiful cityscapes and some of the friendliest locals and best waffles.
The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda performed by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers is, as one might guess from the description, an almost religious experience. A dozen understated but accomplished singers and musicians under the musical direction of Surya Botofasina played an emotional tribute to the late Alice Coltrane who died in 2007. With crowd participation, you feel the warmth in the room and end up wondering if Mrs Coltrane is indeed here in some way.
Cloud Nine, which is situated at the very top of the TivoliVredenburg and requires some epic step climbing, flies the flag for the Brits on Sunday evening, with Bella Union founder Simon Raymonde’s new outfit Lost Horizons playing just ahead of Manchester’s Jane Weaver – with her St Etienne style indie pop.
Other Sunday musical highlights include tUnE-yArDs, Sun Ra Arkestra, Matana Robers, Nadah El Shazly and Mary Margaret O’Hara. But the thing about Le Guess Who? Festival is that the sheer volume and range of music means it’s impossible to leave without a whole new selection of musical loves.
UK venues and festivals could learn a lot from Le Guess Who?; music aside (and we can’t fault that), it’s one of the most well-organised festivals in the world – there are hardly any queues – even for the bars, free cloakrooms for the records you’ve just bought at the record fair, decent and affordable food and drink and it doesn’t break the bank in the same way Glastonbury Festival might do. In fact, early bird tickets are now on sale for a mere €90. Book yours here.