Review: Le Guess Who? Festival 2018
It’s a formula that works. Cutting-edge musicians invited to curate a line-up of diverse artists. Stunning custom-built venues sharing a bill with intricate old churches, industrial warehouse-style nightclubs and independent cafe/bars. Fringe events which spill into the canal-lined streets and showcase local talent. Free cloakrooms, plenty of seating, vegan food inside the main venue. The list goes on.
Le Guess Who takes place in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Utrecht is to Amsterdam what Bristol is to London or San Francisco is to LA. It’s beautiful, it’s chilled and it’s teeming with culture. There’s plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation too, but your best bet may be the awesome Stayokay hostel just a stone’ s throw away from the main TivoliVrendeberg venue and Utrecht Centraal station. It’s a hostel which feels like a Silicon Valley hotel – a great bar/coworking space with table service, the most impressive breakfast spread complete with cut your own herbs (not that kind of herb!).
Getting to this festival could not be easier. We flew from Bristol Airport to Amsterdam Schiphol before hopping on a train and were in Utrecht within a few hours – a much shorter journey than driving to some UK festivals. There are many daily flights with EasyJet and KLM from Bristol Airport, with a similar offering at other regional airports.
In fact, the only things which let this festival down is a) it didn’t coincide with the world’s biggest record fair, the Mega Record & CD Fair in Utrecht, like it did last year and b) the exchange rate making things a tad expensive – £6.50 for a whisky and coke. Starting on Thursday evening and going on into the early hours of Monday morning, you’re left with mornings to sleep/explore the city [delete as appropriate].
Colin Stetson proved the perfect entree for this musical feast – filling the towering Janskerk with a cacophony of sound produced entirely from his lungs and his impressive array of woodwind instruments. Resembling Bane-era Tom Hardy in terms of muscle definition and sheer power and dominance, his fingers hammered the buttons on the antique-looking sax to create a tribal drum style sound while his circular breathing created layer on layer of noise to lure the audience into a trance. At times it felt as though you were in utero in an unrivalled musical experience. One of the clear highlights of this festival. Start as you mean to go on.
One of the most stunning venues has to be the Grote Zaal at TivoliVrendeberg – a huge concert hall with seating in up to the gods. The Art Ensemble Of Chicago graced the stage on Thursday night with their improv jazz – with percussion corner playing host to what looked like a range of brightly coloured children’s instruments repurposed for this mesmerising gig.
When people say there are no good guitar bands these days, they want to check out Black Midi. The baby-faced bunch may look like they should be playing their sixth-form prom but they are wise beyond their years and provided fresh hope for this appreciative crowd. The rich tapestry of influences shine through – from David Byrne and Fugazi to Shame and some.
The Deal sisters brought some 90s grunge vibes to proceedings, playing to a warm but fairly immobile crowd as The Breeders. They seemed chuffed to be playing this festival and their songs spoke for themselves as the effortlessly cool group banged out familiar tune after familiar tune.
Jessica Pratt captivated a packed Janskerk with her quiet yet incredibly powerful rich vocals. With sniffs of Joanna Newsom and Francois Hardy, she blew us away with intricate strings and compelling stories. The lighting at this venue only added to the brilliance of these shows.
UK poet Alabaster dePlume filled TivoliVrendeberg’s Pandora for what felt more like a love-in than a gig. With a full band, which included Paddy Steer, his sometimes stark music was given a boost by keys, drums and cello. A multi-instrumentalist himself (vocals, guitar, saxophone), AdP knows how to command a band leading to a seamless set. With messages of love and respect towards our fellow human beings, the undisputed highlight was his ‘I was going to fight fascism, but…’ ode. Google it, it’s well worth a watch.
Curator Moor Mother didn’t play a set under that name this year, but did join DJ Haram On the decks of Club Poema as part of 700 Bliss. Them set was just as powerful as her solo venture at last year’s Le Guess Who? but wore a totally different gown. The set segued into some late naught tunes from DJ Haram keeping the party going til the early hours.
Resembling a cross between comedian Micky Flanagan and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, US singer songwriter Cass McCombs’s casual yet captivating delivery of some Americana belters was one of the highlights of Saturday’s offering. A nod towards Springsteen, The War On Drugs and Damien Jurado. McCombs was flanked by a guitarist who wouldn’t be out of place in a 70s US sitcom, a drummer and dude on synths. His songs include a cheeky humour which leads to a room full of smiles.
The TivoliVrendeberg’s Grote Zaal proved the perfect backdrop for Neneh Cherry. Her warmth and humility shone through as she performed songs from her 35+ year back catalogue, including set highlight Manchild. Her band featured some younger musicians who totally held their own – with an approach which saw them swapping between keys and guitar with such ease. That’s how you do it.
It was one in one out for British group Sons of Kemet, whose energetic jazz fusion drew people in from across the city.
Roger Eno played an understated late night piano set, his personality shining through as he shared anecdotes and dedicated songs to his family.
Anoushka Shankar sat elegantly on stage playing her ornate sitar while a full MO Strings orchestra, led by the brilliant Manu Delago, provided a rich backing track. Despite the stage being full of accomplished musicians, all eyes were on Shankar (daughter of famous musician Ravi Shankar).
New York rockers Endless Boogie played an unusually early lunchtime set on the Sunday, a full on wig out – guitarists laying on the floor as they pounded their instruments, singer recalling stories through song of going to a KISS gig in the 70s and of the trend for shaving your eyebrows off to be like Bowie. A brilliant hangover cure and segue into the rockier Sunday vibe.
Next up were Hot Snakes, followed by Mudhoney. Both bands were close enough to touch in the barren surrounds of WAS. Between them they have well over half a century of playing live shows so they know how to rock. Mosh pits were inevitable and the mixed crowd livened up as the afternoon went on.
The sheer brilliance of this festival is something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the bands and artists playing, with the majority taking the time to thank the organisers as part of their welcome spiel. Their observation is met with rapturous applause, and rightly so. There’s also a lot of love for the audience – bands acutely aware that people spending their hard-earned cash to support music-making is not a given. It is made easier by the price-tag of his brilliant festival though, at around £100 a ticket it’s half the price of many other festivals.