Le Guess Who? – Day Four: Six of the Best
Battered and bruised after three days of prime festival, we somehow manage to rouse our flagging bodies from their attempts to slumber. Luckily our spirits are still high; Le Guess Who? has been unrelentingly excellent, and the final day manages to throw up more than its fair share of highlights.
Strange that the noble art of songcraft should seem so unfashionable. Expert tunesmith Mikal Cronin is now three albums into his solo career, having also served as Ty Segall’s bass player, and there are few better when it comes to cramming hooks and adrenaline into three-minute, classicist power pop. As a special treat for Le Guess Who?, tonight’s performance comes bolstered by the addition of strings and horns, pushing the bright colours of sterling latest effort MCIII towards the full spectrum.
Stirring cinematics, spine-tingling harmonies, false endings… the modest, unassuming Cronin throws a plethora of treats‘n’tricks at us, and when the likes of Say and Weight ascend their sunnily melodic peaks, it’s an absolute joy to behold. That he’s not widely held in higher esteem remains a crime, but as long as he keeps cranking out instant classics, he’ll continue to be beloved by those blessed enough to be familiar with his oeuvre. And judging by the rapturous reception of the Utrecht crowd, he's just won over another roomful of fully-paid-up devotees.
Having served up several helpings of throwback psychedelic rock already this afternoon in his role as an artist curator, Hoogeveen’s favourite son Jacco Gardner takes to the Pandora stage during peak time to dish out a lovin’ spoonful of his own, a delectable mixture of sherbety pop tunes and appetising jams that’s easy on the palate. Gardner has a knack for writing chord progressions that sound like classics, and his material strikes a good balance between innovation and authenticity, but for all his talents as a songwriter, it’s really his backing band who deserve the credit for elevating this above a competent heritage project.
Ben Rider’s spindly lead guitar brings some mellow indie flavour into the mix while Frank Maston wandering keys keep things loose and airy. MVP goes to bass player Jasper Verhulst however, whose meaty chug guides the band through numerous tempo changes and time signatures. There’s definitely a bit of home pride in the air which probably accounts for the strong turnout, and Gardner responds in kind, being the only artist we hear all weekend speaking exclusively in Dutch. Still, it’s a set we’d imagine going down well almost anywhere.
And there it is, the best dance party of the weekend. Their back story is well-documented – edited version: four Malian refugees who fled to Bamako and decided to form a band – but it’s difficult to put into words how much joy is evident in the music of Songhoy Blues. You can trace elements of Garba Touré’s fluid spirals of sparkling guitar back to the disparate likes of Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker (so much finesse, and so beautifully evocative), whether twanging away at loping, circular riffs or heroically hot-footing it around the fretboard.
Those nimble fingers do good work, but while they’re arguably the main feature on this year’s debut LP Music In Exile – a solid collection that emphasises the ‘blues’ part of their chosen moniker – in the flesh they’re a spectacular part of a dazzling whole. Their polyrhythmic insistence keeps the crowd moving, as does the infectious energy of frontman Aliou Touré – a velvet-voiced and gleefully grinning figure throughout. Easy conclusion to draw, perhaps, but the sense of freedom in these killer grooves is striking, and the almost hymnal qualities of their largely-fabulous songs (nitpicking time: some of the ballads wander a bit too close to Clapton for comfort) create a mood of celebration that’s rarely matched throughout the festival.
While yesterday's unforgettable display from Kamasi Washington was perhaps a bit of an outlier as far as conventional headliners go, he at least has a fair bit of notoriety in the current museo zeitgeist via his associations with the Brainfeeder crew and his work on To Pimp a Butterfly. Bennie Maupin on the other hand, has none of the same cross-over appeal. This is unfiltered, dress shoes and suit trousers jazz from a man who’s been a figure in the history of the genre, having performed alongside the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Maupin seems to be aware of his outsider status at a festival – as eclectic and its programme may be – broadly concerned with alternative rock when he asks us, without a hint of sarcasm, “Have you heard of Charlie Parker?”
Not that he makes any concessions musically though: beginning with a particularly avant-garde number sees him forming complex rhythms from the clacking of his saxophone keys, he and his band meander their way through a handful of dense and dynamic compositions take a great deal of concentration nod along to never mind parse, each a quarter of an hour long. Like Washington’s set, it goes down a bomb, but it’s a more measured response – vigorous applause rather than the all-out hollering of the night before. Maupin appreciates it all the same though: “Thank you for your curiousity.”
Synthesiser pioneer, prog-rock dabbler, Salvador Dali collaborator and positively singular personality Annette Peacock has performed live only a handful of times in the last decade, so this appearance at Le Guess Who? is a rare treat. Splendidly eccentric, it’s also a test of patience that proves too much for some, resulting in a stream of people traipsing up and down the steps to the standing area throughout the performance while the punters to our left show no remorse whatsoever about chatting during every song. Worse yet, a person in front spends the whole time flicking through cake recipes, which mightn’t have been so egregious if Peacock hadn’t deliberately specified such a dark lighting setup.
“Can you get the lighting back to what it was and leave it please?” she requests early on, an instruction indicative of the pinpoint precision that characterises her whole set. For music the seems so diffuse, with rarely a continuous melody or repeated phrase, everything feels so deliberate. Peacock primarily plays piano, but every now and then she’ll airdrop in a drum machine or a synth swell shocks at first but in time it all comes together into a moody combination classical, jazz, poetry and ambient electronic textures. Some dire crowd etiquette aside, it’s a riveting spectacle.
Closing out the weekend is a Bradford Cox double bill consisting of a 45-minute stint as his solo project Atlas Sound followed immediately by another with the rest of Deerhunter. The sets are like two sides of a coin: the first is indulgent and alienating, a wash of shapeless loops and aimless noodling during which Cox, in full forest ranger gear, appears – to politely rephrase one onlooker’s summation – in danger of disappearing under his own hat.
The second is much more welcoming, comprising an abridged exhibition of this year’s widely regarded Fading Frontier alongside a respectable offering of live staples and featuring a affable Cox who periodically indulges individual audience members with small talk, pausing to regale us about the time Le Guess Who? organiser Bob van Heur helped him acquire a new set of teeth after he chomped down too hard on a microphone at a show in Amsterdam.
Thankfully no major injuries occur this evening, and indeed it’s a decidedly mellow set, but a few hair are raised at key moments, especially during the mammoth finale of Nothing Ever Happened, which sends numerous waves of goosebumps rippling round the room. It’s an ironic song to close on of course, marking the end of yet another exemplary performance in a weekend simply stowed with them.