Le Guess Who? – Day One: Six of the Best
Le Guess Who? is an alternative music festival in Utrecht, a city on the rise in terms of both tourism and cultural cachet. With this year's festival featuring guest curators including the likes of Sunn0))), Jacco Gardener and Montréal's ever-illuminative Constellation label, it's safe to say this is a festival that doesn't concern itself too greatly with the mainstream. With that in mind, here's some of our picks from day one:
It’s unavoidable. Being the festival’s first major performer, Julia Holter has the unenviable job of addressing the Paris attacks, lest they remain the elephant in the room – or presently an 11th century Romanesque church – for the remainder on the weekend. In dedication, she opens her set with a sombre rendition of My Love, My Love, Holter’s contribution to a tribute album of unreleased songs by overlooked 60s folk singer Karen Dalton compiled by San Franciscan label Tompkins Square. Reading from sheet music presumably hastily printed and rehearsed within less than the week since the Bataclan tragedy, it’s a passionate and haunting performance that sets the tone for the rest of a set which sees Holter opting for darker material, including a stirring take of How Long with it’s queasy strings translating to a live setting with great effect. It’s hard to imagine a better venue for her voice, her powerful but precise outbursts filling the Janskerk’s cavernous arches with ease.
While known for being somewhat inconsistent on record, tonight’s set from German electronic rock lifers The Notwist is a veritable masterclass front to back, which does absolutely no favours for the old stereotype about Germans and fastidious precision. With a headcount of six and each member playing at least two instruments (often simultaneously) The Notwist deliver a throbbing, enveloping set of club ready post-rock that borders on orchestral in its minute-to-minute nuances and yet it maintains a blunt viscerality that would have weekend crowds back home in an absolute rammy. Tonight’s audience is a little more reserved, but certainly not unappreciative and is successful on egging the band back on stage for a two song encore, even after the lights have come up and equipment is being dismantled. By the end of the day, it’s still the set to beat.
Here’s only a partial list of things Faust uses as instruments: barbeque lids on strings; crumpled up cellophane; a gas canister; a bicycle chain, some sort of steal tube. Yet nothing in their extensive scrapyard haul comes close to the weirdest thing on stage: that honour goes to the three women seated centre stage around what looks like an oversized kettle just casually knitting for the entire length of the performance, remaining utterly stoic even when Jean-Hervé Péron begins pacing back and forth while imitating a telephone. Faust are of course legendary for their strange industrial collage, baffling by even krautrock’s hightly experimental standards, but tonight’s outing – something between a gig, stand up comedy and performance art – sets a new high. “I teach the rules in a language you will never understand!” Péron exclaims at one point. He’s got that right.
By the time the crowd knows what to make of Demdike Stare, their set crashes to a split-second halt, a good 45 minutes of seamless frothy, undulating static, thrillingly terminated with a single slick key press. Such dramatic hard shifts feature throughout their set, and though the performance has the feel of a continuous journey, each new stage is introduced with a jarring jolt of feedback or a distorted wail. Beats tend to drop in and out unexpectedly, giving a brief techno framework to their brittle mechanical soundscapes, like a corrupted radio signal passing through irregular waves of interference. Without a doubt the least conventionally accessible set of the night, Demdike Stare are nevertheless met with rapt attention, certainly one of the advantages of performing on a stage curated by Sunn O))). At a brisk 20 minutes hike from the rest of the festival, it’s not where you’re likely to expect the biggest crowds, but those who do certainly have a good idea of what in store for the next three nights.
Devon Welsh is an awkward fellow. "I don't have a lot to say tonight," he offers with a slight grin, gangly and uncomfortable in the glow of Janskerk's spotlight. He doesn't need to say much, of course. His sublty powerful voice – a one-inch punch of restrained, muscular ache – says more in the nuances of its graveness than any number of melismatic wails. No conventional band, Majical Cloudz are equally capable of sappy, emo-tronic heart-melters as they are of the space between childlike wonder and unmitigated terror (Sample lyric: "I feel like a kid / I feel some monster standing over my crib / And they fall in"). It's all emphasised by the stark electronic overcoat that Welsh's bandmate Matthew Otto applies to proceedings, particularly the suffocated boogie of Are You Alone and their instant classic Childhood's End. "I feel completely humourless tonight," Welsh continues, still bemoaning his own absence of banter. "There's just... nothing." Tonight, all the feels are left to us, and they run deep.
What a thoroughly odd band. Like the near-40-odd years of post-punk pop fed into the disconcerting wonderland of the uncanny valley, Ought twist their songs into an urgency that's also difficult to navigate. They give off the impression of having been entirely unfamiliar with pop music, but having seen a video of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense live show and subsequently figuring they'd got the gist. As with both of their excellent albums, tonight's set is not for the faint-hearted, nor those drawn to the easy immediacy of choruses: set closer Waiting staggers and trips over jerked-out spasms of off-kilter noise and discordant scree, and yet somehow the whole mess pulls together into a head-nodding, relentlessly catchy burst of brillance. Some observers cry for more volume, others casually murmur that they seem to be revving below their normal 180mph tonight, but this just provides a greater thrill in realising they're capable of so much more. Quite simply, Ought deliver the goods.