Utrecht’s Le Guess Who? Isn’t Like Any Festival You’ll See In The USA

These days, whenever all the big-name American festivals start to announce their lineups for the year, there’s inevitably a certain, noticeable same-ness. It’s a consequence of those festivals becoming more popular than at their inception, with festival-going becoming an overall more mainstream activity in America; it’s a consequence of the music industry’s contractions and bands needing that festival circuit to keep the lights on. Each given year, there are going to be certain artists you will see on at least some lineups, and when indie names of a certain level are touring an album, you can be sure that they’ll appear on many of the lineups. It’s just the way it is now: Even with their specific idiosyncrasies and special headliners, Coachella and Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo and Governors Ball etc. are going to have a good deal of overlap. If you go to a bunch of these things, there’s sometimes a comfort in the reliability of it all, a feeling like you’re following, say, War On Drugs or Grimes or Future Islands on tour and seeing them in a bunch of (slightly) different contexts. But there’s also a generic quality there. You can sometimes forget what festival you are at, in which city, in which state.

There are more unique and more niche options here, for sure. But oftentimes, the real counterpoints come in the form of European festivals. Yes, Primavera has the same feel as a giant American festival, but it’s booking is usually more interesting and varied than what you’d see at a festival of a similar size here. Even there, you still know you’re at a big, sponsored festival with mainstream, big-budget concerns. That’s where festivals like Le Guess Who? come in. Based in the idyllic Netherlands town of Utrecht, Le Guess Who? manages to find a strange middle ground: It feels like a major event but in a minor key, an impressive collection of adventurous musicians and concertgoers gathering in mid-November, for one final festival counter-narrative as the year wanes.

For years, whenever I went to Europe for a festival, I’ve been told that Le Guess Who? is really one I needed to check out. It isn’t the biggest or most famous one in Europe or abroad, but it’s the kind of thing that fans and artists and industry folks alike speak of with reverent memories, the one everyone deeply respects, the one everyone says is gratifying to play and gratifying to witness, because no matter how well-versed or -traveled you are in the music world, chances are Le Guess Who? is going to have plenty of options you’ve never heard of before. Unlike the competition, chances are you will catch not one, but many, performances that will hit you with a revelation and leave you wondering how you had never come across this artist before.

Generally speaking, Le Guess Who? lineups skew in a more avant-garde or experimental direction, but they manage to do that while still finding artists who are vital and invigorating onstage, artists who wrangle that experimentation into music that is easy to immediately love. Though the whole thing is artier than a big indie and pop festival, none of it feels pretentious or weird for weirdness’ sake; several of the artists this year stood out because of how their music’s experimentation was rooted in drawing from a wide array of traditions and eras, distilling things into something that feels new and unfamiliar.

Each year, the festival also asks a few artists or entities to contribute to the curation. In 2017, aided by guiding hands like Perfume Genius and Shabazz Palaces and a kindred spirit festival in Basilica Soundscape, Le Guess Who? featured a lineup that had room for traditional African music, innovative and boundary-blurring electronic music, cosmic jazz, frayed and foreboding psych-rock, apocalyptic post-punk, and plenty of other sounds. It was a festival that took what would be relegated to tangents elsewhere, and made them the center of the conversation.

Le Guess Who? also functions very differently from other festivals. It happens right in the middle of Utrecht, a beautiful place with winding pedestrian streets lined with shops and restaurants, with quaint bars overlooking a canal, with architecture both of a new, clean design and of an old-world charm. In past years, the festival apparently spread out, mostly up and down that canal, with people walking — or, as is ridiculously common in Utrecht, riding a bicycle — between various bars and clubs catching a bit of one gig and a bit of the next. There are other festivals that function that way: On a much more catastrophic scale, SXSW consumes Austin’s countless venues, and the more alternative Iceland Airwaves slots in alongside Le Guess Who? one weekend apart as a like-minded relative.

This year, there were still plenty of gigs spread out around Utrecht. But the bulk of the action — or, at least, many of the most notable or exciting names — played in a handful of venues within TivoliVredenburg. This is one thing that makes Le Guess Who? pretty much completely unlike any other festival I’ve ever come across. TivoliVredenburg is a giant, modern building, glass walls exposing pulsing signage and escalators within. You could mistake it for a shopping mall. And yet inside that shopping mall there’s a beautiful theater that could act as a big room for Perfume Genius’ headlining set or an intimate one for the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers’ tribute to Alice Coltrane. There’s a large straight-up venue room that made as much sense for Protomartyr as it did for the Sun Ra Arkestra. As you make your way further upstairs to the two smaller clubs, there are views of Utrecht gently glimmering in the night and floors drenched in pink and purple mood lighting. (One of those areas also had a large smoking room in the middle of it, which got incrementally more packed as the nights unfolded. These areas also could make you feel like you were in Blade Runner, or something.)

Sudan Archives At Le Guess Who?
CREDIT: Melanie Marsman

Those clubs were often the home, fittingly, for some of the more electronic-oriented acts. On Thursday, that meant Sudan Archives, one of the artists who summed up the ethos of Le Guess Who? pretty perfectly. Influenced by Sudanese fiddlers, Sudan Archives blends R&B, electronic, and classical — she switches from tweaking dials to picking up a violin frequently. She is one of those artists who presented music at Le Guess Who? that didn’t sound like anyone else, at all. It was a stunning introduction to a young artist, and you could only imagine the next level she could take it to if/when she could have a few other musicians onstage aiding with percussion or strings or synths. Likewise, London-based producer Kelly Lee Owens — a recent honoree on our 2017 Best New Bands list — brought a solo electronic set to the same room that was totally mesmerizing. Beginning quiet and dreamier, the set picked up intensity as it unfolded. Owens’ ghostly vocals were a constant, but by the end the electronics throbbed and filled the room, with her thrashing alone onstage still gripping the mic in one hand and guiding the storm with the other.

Across the nights, artists like Weyes Blood, Jenny Hval, and Moor Mother also occupied these rooms. And what was striking about Le Guess Who? was just how packed it was for artists you could still consider up-and-coming or underground or niche. You could barely get in the room for Weyes Blood. On that same night, there was a 20-minute wait to get in to see Moon Duo. (If you fought through the crowd, it was well worth it; Moon Duo’s brand of trance-inducing, scorched-earth psychedelia was a perfect match for a club gig bathed in lights and traditional psychedelic visuals.) This is one way in which the specific layout of Le Guess Who? could be seen as a weakness; all of the major acts being centered in TivoliVrandenburg could yield shockingly long lines and hordes of people moving quickly from floor to floor, cramming the maze-like arrangement of escalators and tiny stairwells. But there’s an inspiring bright side to all that, too: You’re seeing a bunch of people on a Saturday night, crowding in to see artists that might go unfairly lesser-noticed at other festivals, as if they were the biggest names on the circuit.

That makes Le Guess Who? an ideal template for curation far outside that of a typical festival. In recent years, it hasn’t been uncommon to see a few jazz names pop up at Governors Ball or Bonnaroo. But that’s pretty much always going to be the Preservation Hall Jazz Band or Kamasi Washington, and they’re definitely outliers. This was one of the coolest and most eye-opening strains of Le Guess Who? 2017, the fact that jazz greats were given a prominence on par with of-the-moment names. One of those was the saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders, who played Tivoli’s big theater on Friday night. Looking a bit more ancient than his 77 years, Sanders spent half the set seated behind his band, letting them do their thing. Then, at key moments, he shuffled around back to the front, and would just glide through some transcendent shit for five or so minutes before quietly shuffling back to his seat.

There was also the tribute to Alice Coltrane, which you couldn’t classify as jazz, exactly. Performing a set that was just drums, keys, and a choir, the Sai Anantam Ashram singers led the theater’s crowd — some of whom were seated on pillows on the floor, rather than the standing room that existed at other shows in the room — in vigorous chants. (Everyone was handed a songbook as they entered the theater.) It was more of a spiritual experience than a gig you’d be used to seeing in a festival context. Later that night, the Sun Ra Arkestra delivered a spiritual experience in a different format, delving deep into the iconic Sun Ra’s catalog for a Sunday headline set that was sometimes straightforward jazz (of course played incredibly well) and sometimes veered into the more transportative corners of the Sun Ra catalog.

Sun Ra Arkestra At Le Guess Who?
CREDIT: Jelmer de Haas

Even the secret performers were the kinds of names there to make you discover something rather than a way for the festival to up its clout. It’s not like they had some more surefire indie touring names in their back pocket. Instead, the surprise acts — signaled on each night’s schedule with the “?” from Le Guess Who?’s logo — were names like Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, the enigmatic art collective the Residents (who performed in cow costumes), contemporary Gogo performer Msafiri Zawose, and Princess Nokia, the Manhattan rapper/the hero who threw hot soup at a racist asshole on the subway. Those are big names in their ways, for sure, whether with Amadou & Mariam’s prominence or Princess Nokia’s ascension, but they’re still in line with the festival’s tendency towards lesser-highlighted corners of the music world getting a bigger platform.

Within all of that, yes, there was still some room for names you’d normally see tossed around in the indie world or popping up on festival posters. But where these artists seemed like the fairly well-known or expected names at Le Guess Who?, they’d still be the outsiders and weirdoes anywhere else. It was the aforementioned Moon Duo, or the sardonic bark of Protomartyr, or the blistering noise of METZ, or the WTF-synthpop of John Maus. Even more legacy names like Thurston Moore and Sun Kil Moon were given room to spread out and be their truest, most extreme version of themselves.

For Mark Kozelek in his current iteration, that means a performer that was equal parts frustrating and transfixing as he’s turned into this Nick Cave-esque entity if Nick Cave was a drunk redneck who formerly worked at a gas station. He crooned and barked about life’s banalities and nonsequiturs as if they had great gravity — well, giving them great gravity. He made a lot of jokes about the name “Utrecht” sounding like a STD; ever-annoyed by “the youth” filming and photographing everything and living via their phones, he stole someone’s from their hand and turned it into a running joke about how happy he was to receive the nice gift of a new phone in Holland. And remember, this was Kozelek in a good, crowd-pleasing mood. It was one of the more talked about sets of the weekend, eliciting wonder and exhaustion from those who had been there in equal measure.

Perfume Genius At Le Guess Who?
CREDIT: Erik Luyten

Then there was Perfume Genius on Sunday. As one of the curators and one of the bigger names on the lineup — as well as one of the people who had a big new album out this year — Perfume Genius felt like the official headliner of the weekend. And his set was unbelievable. Plenty of people that day were talking about how the last time they’d seen Mike Hadreas perform live, it was just him and a piano. The Perfume Genius live show has grown a lot in the years since along with the music, but Hadreas has reached another level on this current tour. He’s the kind of performer who walks out and, from the very beginning of the show, it feels as if everything in the room now orbits around him. For the next hour and a half, every movement he made — the dancing, the convolutions, the hushed piano balladry, the pretty melodies and the screams — was impossible to look away from. Several of his new songs transformed into theatrical, bombastic synthpop onstage; the more electronic material from Too Bright has only become more bristling and unsettling over time.

Of course, he ended the whole thing with “Queen.” Here’s the thing about “Queen” as a closer: “Queen” is a perfect song. Every note of it, every decision, from start to finish — it’s a mind-blowing composition, from its simmering beginning to its sudden, roaring and churning climaxes. It sounded gigantic in that room, gigantic as one of the final closers on Le Guess Who?’s final night. Hadreas walked offstage as the band was still finishing the song’s calmed, instrumental coda. He looked like a rockstar who’d just delivered the big anthem. And that’s what it was, but even as big as Perfume Genius has gotten over the years, it’s still an anthem to whatever small slice of the general music-listening population that’s aware of Perfume Genius. It didn’t matter. It felt like the biggest thing ever in that moment. In that way, it was the perfect denouement to Le Guess Who?, an anthem for a festival that was all about surprises and left turns and diversity. It was an anthem ringing out at the end of a festival that amplified the other stories.

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