We delve into a land of churches, cutting-edge music and festivals within festivals at Le Guess Who? in Utrecht
Your grandchildren won’t believe you when you tell ‘em, but music festivals used to be a part of the counter culture. Presumably there’s a parallel universe where that remains a reality; where Glastonbury seems less like a middle class arts getaway concocted entirely for television; where pop music’s mainstream still feels like a force with the potential for social change, rather than a lifestyle accessory to be filed under ‘things try-hard politicians pretend to understand’. Still, there are a zillion reasons why this current path feels more progressive than what came before, so why worry about the erosion of how previous generations got their kicks? Time makes fools of us all, in one way or another.
Besides, there are plenty of festivals out there who still get it absolutely right. With this year’s headliners comprising Wilco, Julia Holter, Savages and Suuns, it’d be tempting to call this an indie rock-focussed affair, but in all honesty that’s just the starting point: LGW sketches outwards from there and spirals off into all sorts of brain-busting directions. Where else could you see Bosnian accordionist Mario Batkovic blowing minds in a packed-out church, on the same line-up as 79-year-old samba legend Elza Soares, holding court from the vantage point of a towering throne? Or free jazz survivor Patty Waters dismantling the American songbook, shortly before dubbed-out post-rockers Tortoise turn a huge theatre into a blur of dancing energy?
[Elza Soares at Le Guess Who?]
In some respects, it feels like LGW carries the same ideals as the theory behind All Tomorrow’s Parties before it all went to shit, with the focus on cult heroes, overlooked brilliance, the avant-garde and the cutting edge. But whereas ATP’s choice of site in the decayed world of British holiday camps meant it always carried an air of the archaic (or, more pessimistically, the ultimately doomed), the Utrecht festival is located largely in the finery of the enormous and frighteningly modern TivoliVredenburg.
It's a vast complex housing multiple performance spaces of varying types – Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz plays the work of Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou in the 540-capacity concert room Hertz, while Dinosaur Jr lay waste to an audience of around 2000 at Ronda, two floors below. Granted, it can feel unusual seeing some of the gnarliest sounds around in rooms that have yet to be worn down by years of pogoing crowds and spilled beer, but that doesn’t impact on the atmosphere in the slightest.
It stretches out into the city’s other music venues too. You want gritty? Try taking a trip to the festival’s furthest outpost: De Helling has the feel of a DIY punk space in a cavernous warehouse environment. It’s perfect for the skull-crushing, soul-hollowing black metal of Oathbreaker and Girl Band’s scuzzily snarky chaos alike – both play to heaving crowds and leave the room tainted with the faintly charred scent of blown minds.
Beyond that, you can take a wander by the canal to the back room of Ekko, where we catch local favourites Amber Arcades delivering a triumphant set of jangling majesty, or head further into the town towards the medievally-designed Leeuwenbergh – a former plague house, long since converted into a performance space, where Julia Holter has programmed a Sunday performance by The Schola Cantorum’s Karolus Magnus. Bit of Gregorian chanting to start your day? Tragic tales of female martyrs? Go on then.
[SUUNS at Le Guess Who?]
If any festival truly takes on the themes of its home city, it’s Le Guess Who? Seemingly composed entirely of churches (some repurposed, many still in operation), there’s a real sense of reverence and worship that bleeds into the crowd’s respectful appreciation of all performers.
Indeed, the city’s 112-foot Domkerk cathedral towers above the surrounding landscape, with its carillon of 50 bells playing a variety of classical and pop songs throughout the day, reflecting its musical history and interaction with current affairs. “I don’t normally make political statements,” carillon player Malgosia Biebig tells us as she launches into The Beatles’ Yesterday, mere days after the election of Donald Trump. “But…” She leaves the statement to hang ominously in elipsis. As if to emphasise that musical history, LGW syncs up with the city’s hosting of the 46th Mega Record & CD Fair, an event of intimidatingly vast proportions.
Veteran Dutch post-punk heroes get some overdue appreciation as they curate their own festival-within-the-festival, as well as blowing minds with a guest-filled appearance in Ronda. There’s also spin-off affair Le Mini Who?, celebrating the underground yin to the main event's grandiose yang – as we watch the very literally-named garage punk quartet Charlie & The Lesbians incite a near riot in the tiny Village Coffee spot, we wonder if we’ve just seen the best band of the weekend.
But that’s a question that comes up time and again at LGW, and when it all comes to a dizzying close at midnight on Sunday, via Jonny Greenwood’s Junun collaboration with Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express, we look around the pogoing masses and wonder – quite justifiably – why it can’t always be this good. Next year can’t come soon enough.