Le Guess Who? 2017: The Review

With its diverse music programming and its emphasis on equality, Utrecht's Le Guess Who? is a truly unique offering on the festival circuit, and one we should be thankful for

Live Review by Tallah Brash | 15 Dec 2017

The 11th edition of Le Guess Who?’s celebration of sound is one of great quality, diversity and equality. “This has been a year of strong voices, and we too have felt a cultural responsibility to curate the edition with clear intentions and present meaningful content with a message,” states the festival’s programme guide, later offering: “a challenge to discover and to ask, to be open, and willingly immerse yourself in something new and perhaps be overwhelmed.”

A quick flick through the programme shows us in just a few pages how diverse LGW17 is – as well as artists from the UK and America, they welcome musicians from Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, France, Belgium, Brussels, Canada, Denmark, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, Iraq, Germany, Senegal, South Korea, Argentina, Japan, Bulgaria… and the list goes on; the genres on offer are just as diverse: electronica, industrial, folk, rock, hip-hop, post-rock, ambient, jazz, gospel, techno, spoken word, grunge, punk and afrobeat are all here, and there’s even a 12-hour drone session available to those so inclined. Le Guess Who? is overwhelming, but in the most wonderful of ways.

Le Guess Who? is a truly unique festival which brings people together from all different cultural backgrounds to the beautiful and welcoming city of Utrecht; the city itself acting as the festival site with everything from churches and theatres to university buildings and museums being turned into live venues for the four-day weekend, making Le Guess Who? a great way to explore and discover the city. And with no obvious headliners, like most other festivals, they instead invite some key performers to curate their own line-ups making for a one-of-a-kind experience: James Holden, Perfume Genius, Grouper, Han Bennink, Shabazz Palaces and Jerusalem in My Heart all provide a snapshot into their musical influences, as well as the music they love. The template is inspired.

Thursday 9 November

With all this in mind, “Fuck your flag!”, “Get the fuck out!” or something along those lines is therefore a shocking welcoming first line to hear from any of the acts performing, especially when coming from one of this year’s curators. “He’s holding an Israeli flag,” Radwan Ghazi of Jerusalem in My Heart emphatically shouts at an audience member in the front row of TivoliVrendenburg’s Pandora space, clearly agitated. “That’s not a flag. Out.” he adds forcefully before launching into a world of weird vocal effects, hypnotic bleeps and pulses and flickering, erratic visuals. Jerusalem in my Heart is at times punishing – at one point it genuinely feels like a small jet is preparing for take-off – and ultimately challenging but the overall effect is mesmerising and you can’t help but be drawn into Ghazi’s world, even after the awkward beginnings.

Due to the utterly sardine-like nature in Pandora, we leave early to make sure we get a good spot for K Á R Y Y N in Cloud 9 (also in Tivoli) and it seems we’re not the only ones who had that idea; “Wow, so many people. I can’t believe it,” she says before her shocking confessional: “this is my fifth show. Ever!” From her a capella opener, with K Á R Y Y N perched on the edge of the stage as triangular smoke-filled swirling lights beam down behind her, to dancing looped vocals, and powerful electronic beats provided by a live drummer, K Á R Y Y N is bewitching. Sadly, her vocals seem pushed to their absolute limit tonight and come out the other end fuzzy and distorted – despite this, she still delivers a beautiful performance.

Hoping to make it the short 11-minute walk to the stunning Domkerk Cathedral for Grouper & Paul Clipson, we leave Tivoli early and due to the M C Escher-like nature of the building – there are staircases and escalators EVERYWHERE – we arrive two minutes after their stage time to find that the cathedral is already at capacity. Defeated, we wander back on to the festively lit streets of Utrecht and opt in to LGW?’s secret Thursday night act in Tivoli’s Grote Zaal, which literally translates to 'big room,' and it is MASSIVE.

The stage is set with a heavy percussion section, drums, keys, guitar, bass and four mics across the front, and before we know it we’re bopping to Malian duo Amadou & Mariam and it’s a real treat. Colourful in both clothing and personality, it’s hard not to move to their infectious afrobeats – even the monitor engineer at the side of the stage can’t stop dancing – and Bofou Safou from their latest record, La Confusion, is a highlight.

Making sure we get in for DFA Records' Essaie Pas, we slip out early so we have enough time to make our way to the upper echelons of Tivoli. Marie Davidson and Pierre Guerineau are dressed head-to-toe in black, the lighting is practically non-existent, the beats are dark – we’re on the techno-goth train and we don’t care who knows it. Davidson is the real star of this performance; the beats course through her veins and often it feels as if they’re flying straight out of her fingertips, through the speakers and into our ears. A couple of tracks see Davidson prowling the stage as she delivers flawless vocals, including on latest single, Future Parle. As they wrap up, Davidson thanks us, telling us while laughing, “That was our first show after one year and a half.” It was fucking great. Play more please.

[Amadou & Mariam by Tim van Veen]

Friday 10 November

On Friday afternoon we head over to one of Utrecht’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods – Lombok – for the brand new, and aptly titled, Lombok Festival which plays host to a number of live performances across nine locations with a focus on local musicians. We catch the wonderful Dutch/Moroccan singer Karima el Fillali performing spoken word and singing with accompaniment by masterfully plucked qanûn courtesy of Iraqi musician Jamil al Asado in the beautiful Antoniuskerk. We’re also treated to delicious local food and a number of dance performances at an exciting food market just next to the Utrecht suburb's neon-lit central Mosque.

Heading back into the centre, we set up camp for the night in TivoliVrendenburg who have seven performance spaces on the go tonight. Protomartyr are our first port of call in Ronda, with the sharply-dressed Joe Casey up front and centre, can of beer in hand. "It’s a very nice festival you've got going on here,” he says part way through, “we don't have this shit in Detroit." Protomartyr are a warm, gracious and tight unit with tonight’s set mainly drawn from September’s Relatives in Descent album – all bar three tracks are present – and Casey’s vocal is powerful, fuelled with so much passion at times that even from the back we can see the spray flying from his mouth, at points looking as if his head might burst.

Producer and songwriter Kelly Lee Owens is next for us tonight, dressed in a leather jacket over a silver jacket over a black sparkly dress, shedding layers as her set progresses. Starting ethereally akin to her self-titled debut, a few songs in she announces Anxi., co-written and produced with Jenny Hval. “We’re here to dance right? Let’s have fun!” she says, and from here on her set bubbles until it reaches boiling point – Owens at moments practically headbanging over her gear – and it’s impossible to keep still to her pounding dark techno. "Thanks for listening, it really means a lot. The world's going to shit. Let's just have fun," she says before closing out her set and disappearing into the yellow smoke-filled stage. Bliss.

Dressed in a shiny black onesie, Owens’ pal Jenny Hval follows in Pandora. "Hi. I'm just going to turn myself on.... I'm like a machine," she says arriving on stage adjusting her in-ear monitors as her performance partner Orfee Schuijt strips off stage-left down to a nude coloured leotard with a black bust. Opening with Apocalypse, girl’s Take Care of Yourself we bear witness to various aerobic exercises from Schuijt, including the popular upside down bicycle. “I feel like I’m in a very happy episode of Black Mirror in this room,” Hval says, and I guess, so do we.

While the music sounds great throughout, and Hval’s presence is strangely comforting, at times it does feel like there is too much going on, with too many distractions: aerobics; flower dissecting/throwing/hitting; during one song a smartphone is used to provide some fairly bad and unnecessary visuals; another features a scrolling Google search for ‘true Norwegian black.metal girl’; a letter is typed (and deleted in sections) on a massive screen at the back of the stage for another. It’s tiresome, and impossible to focus on everything – sadly this performative style takes away from the music. We get it, we do, but maybe less is more?

Which leads us to the beautiful ambient piano of Tom Rogerson – set to release his debut album in December with the ambient master Brian Eno – in Tivoli's Hertz venue, where less really is more. His set-up is simply piano, keyboard and laptop, and he plays effortlessly and with utmost precision, his bleeps and synth-like wheezes elegant.

What’s not so elegant tonight, however, is Prurient, one of several monikers belonging to experimental musician Dominick Fernow (Vatican Shadow being another), whose hour long assault we still can’t actually believe we sat through in its entirety. At the beginning it’s as if we’re being beamed up, both the sounds and visuals are unsettling. Vocals are practically squawked throughout, and combined with Fernow’s harsh industrial soundscapes it’s an overall difficult listen and probably what the inside of Twin Peaks’ Killer Bob’s head sounds like.

So remember every time you've heard music described as ‘punishing’. Even previously in this review. Well, ignore it, because we hadn't seen Prurient yet. It’s genuinely one of the hardest things we've ever sat through, and if you’ve ever wondered what it's like to witness a grown man have a tantrum, then watching Prurient should give you some indication. While there are some less stressful moments during his set, you have to be prepared to do the time to ultimately reap those small rewards. We’re so stressed after this that we call it a night, it's almost 2am after all so we’re not doing too badly!

[Protomartyr by Tim van Veen]

Saturday 11 November

Rather conveniently (it was obviously planned), on the same weekend as thousands of music lovers descend upon the picturesque city of Utrecht, the city also plays host to its 48th Mega Record & CD Fair featuring over 500 stall holders from all over the world. Housed within two enormous halls at Jaarbeurs exhibition and convention centre, this is every crate-digger's dream; there is literally vinyl for days, so much in fact that it would be impossible to listen to all of it in any one person’s lifetime. We’re overwhelmed, we’ve never seen anything quite like it. The best advice we can offer – to stop you getting yourself in a panic like we did – is this: know what you’re hoping to find and go with a firm plan, otherwise it can feel pretty stressful. And give yourself plenty of time to take it all in.

Also taking place today is Le Mini Who?, which sees many of the cafes and shops in the Breedstraatbuurt area of the city turned into makeshift music venues for the day; with the focus mainly on Dutch bands, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon/evening bouncing about discovering new bands, as well as a bit more of the local area.

As day turns to night, we find ourselves back at Tivoli – in Pandora we catch a bit of Warp Records mainstay Gonjasufi, before being taken on an experimental hip-hop journey courtesy of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, aka Shabazz Palaces. Cuts tonight are mainly taken from their latest duo of Quazarz records; there are synchronised moves near the start of their set, belly-shaking bass throughout, and the moments where Butler and Maraire play off one another with percussion and samples are some of the best. Sadly we become very quickly distracted as we’ve spotted a live artist (we're practically in full darkness apart from occasional stage-lighting and a projected backdrop), lit up like a fucking beacon to the right-hand side of the room. We’re sure he’s meant to be drawing his own artistic representation of Shabazz Palaces, but what he’s drawn is some sort of mad cockroach/praying mantis/alien-life form. It’s awful. We sadly can’t look away.

Moving on to Ronda next, James Holden & The Spirit Animals start proceedings with the throat-like singing of The Animal Spirits album opener, Incantation for Inanimate Object, we’re quickly thrust into the shimmering bells and synthesized arpeggios of The Animal Spirits. With sprawling brass and percussion, coupled with repetitive electronics, we’re pulled fully into Holden’s imagination and it’s thrilling. As the majority of instrumentation drops out towards the end of the song, leaving just Holden playing beats, he’s met by an enthusiastically whooping and cheering crowd, giving the strange buzz of a homecoming show. We stay for a bit, but are keen to catch Ex-Easter Island Head – curated by Holden, oddly on at the same time – in Hertz, so we scurry off to sadly discover it’s impossible to get in so we peer from the back and manage to catch just half of the last song, which sounded bloody great!

After a brief break for food, we find ourselves back in Hertz for another Holden curation; Leeds’ XAM Duo. Comprised of Hookworms' Matthew Benn and Deadwall’s Christopher Duffin, the duo perform with precision facing each other across a sizeable table; littered with a multitude of cables, synths and keys, there’s barely any room for even a bottle of water. The lights of their kit flicker in the near darkness before a warm fuzzy note wobbles filling the room – the ambient experimental soundscapes they create are otherworldly, in places reminiscent of that amazing slow mo scene from Dredd that uses an 800% slowed down version of Justin Bieber’s U Smile. Mostly, XAM Duo are warm and soothing, but as their set builds, by the end it’s difficult, as if we’re hearing sirens. Their just-short-of-an-hour-long set is, in a word, stunning.

A quick shuffle back to Ronda ends our night with the final 15-20 minutes-or-so of Australian producer and composer Ben Frost. Massive floor-to-ceiling shiny rippling backdrop? Check. Massive plumes of smoke? Check. Massive sounds? Check check check. Frost is a rare last-minute treat to the senses. We’re supremely satisfied and ready for bed.

[James Holden and The Animal Spirits by Tim van Veen]

Sunday 12 November

We start our musical endeavours a little earlier on the last day of the festival with Portland-based Visible Cloaks, who someone in the queue referred to as ‘Invisibility Cloaks’, as we never thought we were ever going to get into Theatre Kikker to see them. We queue for quite a while and very nearly leave until a fellow-queuer discovers that they’re just running late, which is a shame as lots of people had already left by this point assuming the theatre was at capacity. Once in we’re treated to a quite incredible 45-or-so-minutes of almost non-stop, sometimes blippy and jerky, but mostly calming and shimmering wave of noise that gently washes over us. It’s set to a huge backdrop of stunning visuals by Brenna Murphy, that sometimes are so wild we feel we should be looking at them through 3D glasses.

From the colourfulness of Visible Cloaks to the dressed all in white Aldous Harding – who we queue a good hour or so in advance for as we’ve had a bad run of luck getting into some of the smaller venues and there’s no way we’re missing this – performing solo, as well as with some tracks backed by keys and bass. She is utterly bewitching, and housed in the stunning surrounds of Academiegebouw, a grand outbuilding of the Domkerk, we couldn’t be happier. Drawing mostly from her latest album, Party, Harding – sipping on a can of Red Bull throughout – delivers a flawless set while staring into the soul of anyone (us included) who dare look her in the eyes. It’s equal parts uncomfortable and exhilarating, and as her unique vocal washes over us, in the chilly yet magnificent hall, we feel at ease. Perfection.

Grand plans of attending the 12-Hour Drone are quashed by icy cold temperatures, wind, drizzly rain and a lack of bikes, so we grab some dinner and then head to Tivoli's Pandora to catch the end of Rotterdam-based artist, Sevdaliza, who performs tonight for the first time with her string quartet. It's mad busy for this one, to the point of discomfort, so we don't hang about for long before heading to Grote Zaal.

Otherside’s delicate piano opens Mike Hadreas', aka Perfume Genius, set tonight before crashing into a cacophony of noise and light. The sound is enormous, and echoed by an equally enormous cheer we know we’re in for a treat from another of the festival’s curators. During their second song, Hadreas falls down but styles it out; “I’m glad I’ve fallen in the first few minutes,” he laughs. We’re treated to no less than 19 songs – pulling mainly from latest album, No Shape – including a Mary Margaret O’Hara cover, one of the acts curated by PG who performed in the same room not long before. Tonight’s performance from Perfume Genius is perfectly paced, rising and falling beautifully, in points backed by a stunning string quartet. Hadreas himself is full of warmth; joking in-between songs about his full-sized bath towel for mopping his brow, and about being selfish with his curatorial programme. Queen perfectly rounds off a ridiculously massive performance from Perfume Genius, and Hadreas salutes the audience while grinning like a cheshire cat before leaving the stage, and we’re all in awe.

[Princess Nokia by Erik Luyten]

The final surprise performer of the weekend, and last of the live acts, comes in the form of 25-year-old New York rapper, Princess Nokia, who arrives on stage a little late due to the sequined Sun Ra Arkestra’s inability to stop playing, but it’s worth the wait, and what a fucking amazing surprise. “I’m gonna be about the lyrics, the music and the poetry,” she tells us. “If anyone doesn’t respect me as a person of colour. You can leave. If anyone doesn’t respect me as a woman, you can also go.”

A strong opening gambit from Nokia, real name Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, provokes a roar of acceptance around Tivoli’s Ronda. Taking advantage of the unique opportunity of performing as a surprise guest at Le Guess Who? Frasqueri tells us that she’s usually really “fidgety” so she’s focusing on “staying still”, she also takes the opportunity to recite some of her lyrics as spoken word pieces. Excerpts from Brujas and Mine are powerfully delivered, and following this, the massive jungle beat of Dragons draws the festival to a close. “Thank you so much for this wonderful pleasure,” she says curtseying, before leaving the stage.

And I don’t think we could say it any better to be honest. Thank you Le Guess Who? for this wonderful pleasure – the last four days have been truly eye-opening; it’s amazing to see such a unique and avant-garde festival bringing so many people from so many different cultures and backgrounds together to celebrate the universal appeal of music, and to such a warm-hearted and welcoming city too. Utrecht's Le Guess Who? is a truly unique offering on the festival circuit, and one we should all be thankful for.


Some words of advice

1. Be prepared to arrive in plenty of time if you want to catch acts in some of the smaller, standalone venues
2. Hire a bike

The next Le Guess Who? festival is taking place from 8-10 Nov, 2018 in Utrecht, The Netherlands; tickets are available now for just 117€ here