Many festivals sell themselves on the proviso of providing something unique, yet for many festivals this promise is often either an exaggeration or simply erroneous. Le Guess Who?, a four-day event situated in the heart of the picturesque city of Utrecht, bucks that trend and a heap of other trends too.
This is something immediately apparent upon entering the venue that hosts a good percentage of the festival's core activities, the vast multi-room complex known as the TivoliVredenburg. Across its nine floors there is a bar selling (well made) cocktails, local independent restaurateurs offering cuisines such as Ethiopian and Surinamese, numerous art installations and various hidden hangouts that you could miss if you were to focus solely on the larger stages within it. There is nothing deliberately different purely for the sake of being different, and certainly nothing resembling a gimmick to the oddity of it; moreso, there is a dream-like quality to the way it all links together in a way you wouldn't expect.
Then there is the music, of course. It wouldn't be possible to accurately give a summation of the true breadth of the schedule offered, but in commenting on what makes Le Guess Who? so unrivalled it is worth at least making an attempt. How about; a blistering performance from a Tuvan throat singer, hyper-personal singer-songwriting transformed into hard-rock jams and a secret set from the prominent purveyors of traditional Malian music. This, all within the space of three hours at a single venue.
The festival's highlights are as equally difficult to define as its breadth. One that most will agree on however is the set of Perfume Genius, who headlines Sunday's line-up. When Mike Hadreas made his first nervous moves into the musical spotlight with his introspective, barely-there chamber pop the idea of him headlining such a festival, or indeed any at all, would have been ludicrous but four albums into a transformation from a shy retirer into an absolute showman he completely owns it. Much of this is to do with Mike's own presence, as he stalks and sashays across the stage, but his backing band are definitely unsung heroes, particularly drummer Herve Picard who gives songs like 'Longpig' and 'Grid' a new lease of life.
Other delights are found at the numerous satellite venues in the city. The one-two punch of Japan's Violent Magic Orchestra and Vampillia is more than worth the thirty minute walk to DB's, an excellent independent recording studio-cum-venue that is by far the furthest distance from the festival's epicentre. Both bands, who share members and vague ideas centred around the genres of black-metal, neo-classical and electronica, lay waste to a room that is surprisingly full considering the walk (or cycle) out, throwing themselves into the audience with wild abandon.
Not every highlight burns at such a blistering pace though. Mozart's Sister (pictured above) is probably the festival's purest purveyor of pop music and perhaps not the type of act that you would typically associate with Le Guess Who? but her Sunday afternoon set ranks highly amongst the more esoteric offerings across the weekend, and it goes down just as well. This is testament not only due to euphoric and irritatingly catchy gems like 'Moment 2 Moment' and 'Eternally Girl' but the complete lack of pretension of the audience.
This lack of pretension combined with a thirst for the discovery is something that mirrors the festival and also makes it so much more enjoyable and welcoming. With the exception of an awkward moment where an audience member brings an Israeli flag to the front of Jerusalem In My Heart's set, perhaps mistakenly assuming that the Lebanese-Canadian performer is Israeli himself, and is asked to leave for doing so. there are no hints of unrest or attitude throughout the weekend, with the only complaints arising from the difficulty to get into some performances held outside of the TivoliVredenburg. For instance Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares at the stunning centuries-old Domkerk cathedral and a number of those held under the banner of the festival's free sister-program Le Mini Who.
These frustrations are fair, particularly in reference to the hens-teeth rarity of Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares live performance but such issues are a by-product of the festival's desire to give everything the best home and are more-or-less inevitable when considering the bewildering quantity and range of acts on offer. And whilst some attendees do voice concerns that the festival is beginning to outgrow itself. the entire weekend is expertly managed from every point of view.
Growth isn't something that should be avoided, even if it has led to the dilution or demise of a number of festivals, and if Le Guess Who? continues to do so without compromising on its identity and ideals then it will remain as unmissable as it is unique.
Words: Jordan Dowling
Photos: Erik Luyten