Is Le Guess Who? on the brink of change? Maybe it’s just me but the popular Utrecht-based festival had less of its old “establishment indie” character about it. This is despite many of the things that led to a sell out festival remained the same: an artist-led curation system, gigs and initiatives spread round the pretty city of Utrecht. So what is happening? For one, the crowds were appreciably different; a wider mix of city day trippers on a FOMO trip alongside serious music heads and the odd individual malcontent; not just the country’s trend hounds or the same old media types jostling for attention. Different venues and overlooked areas of the city were used, too. Now and again the programming felt looser, rougher, and in turn attracted a more independent audience. Personally - despite the big crowds - I liked Le Guess Who? more this year. Everything felt a bit wilder, the downsides (a jammed Le Mini Who) were more visible and in retrospect made the experience more of a lottery. So I’m not going to moan (much) about seemingly standing forever behind well appointed bakfietsmoeders ordering a round of hot chocolate at a “pop-up” gig. You need sand in the vaseline for a good creative policy, and we got some of that. Otherwise the situation can be too perfect, too settled, too contented.
What gives this festival consistently the edge year on year is the fact the gigs are brilliant. In fact I can’t really remember a bad show at Le Guess Who? over the years. This has a lot to do with the feeling that all preparation is catered towards the artist, especially finding the right setting to uncover their talents and vision. This impetus to go the extra mile to show off musical riches to their best effect stops the exercise feeling like a money driven gawpfest at a bunch of famous names. And the first three gigs on the opening night was proof of that; an incredible run, highlighting the breadth and knowledge of programming.
First up on our agenda was Lonnie Holley, who had played a killer gig in Tivoli’s Cloud Nine at a previous edition. Safely ensconced behind his keys in the main hall, and flanked by Dave Nelson on trombone and Marlon Patton on drums and Moog bass pedals, Holley set forth on a show of some vision and grace. It would be wrong, I think, to call the three (three!) tracks we got streams-of-consciousness workouts; because although Holley’s message does draw on the moment and comes from a very deep place, his message is a very clear one. Holley is a preacher, concerned with the state of our collective soul. He is an experienced preacher, too. To elevate band and audience to another astral plane needs grit and sweat and skill; as these kinds of gigs can’t just happen out of thin air. We were certainly aware that there was a marriage of the spiritual motherload to the smallest sonic detail; a sort of cosmic-sonic sales pitch being played out on us. And in this, Holley’s inner eye was given shape and impetus by some terrific playing, particularly by Patton, whose incredibly sensitive arrangements could almost talk at times.
Up in Cloud Nine any idea of a spiritual walkabout was given short shrift in favour of something altogether more visceral from Lydia Lunch’s big Sexy Noise. Lunch surely needs no introduction. And with Ian White and James Johnston of Gallon Drunk fame making up the rest of the band, a Detroit style burn up seemed assured. That’s what we got, too: a ferocious show that got better and better as a vortex of black noise built up to something that could almost be touched. Lunch’s no nonsense asides started early, telling the sound man to get her vocals sorted in the clipped, abrasive manner of a Regimental Sergeant Major telling a squaddie to sort out the polish on his boots. And before launching into a shattering version of ‘Your Love Don’t Pay My Rent’, Lunch told all the “bitch boys” (here in this city with their tote bags and man creams) to put a fucking stop in it, stop wanking about and cough up the money to support their women allies. Visibly enjoying himself, Johnston played his axe like some elf lord unmasked, slaying orcs left right and centre. Lunch, in control and replete with fan and wine, strutted about the place like La Maja Vestida, pushing her band to make more noises that harked to the edge of nothingness. Black sonic unguent poured forth like goo out of a blocked drain, given direction by Lunch’s stentorian commands and anti-soul voice. This was proper teeth shaking rock and roll, Simply Saucer in places. And the place relaxed and started to realise this is music for the here and now and not some list ticking exercise. An amazing gig.
After this we went up yet more stairs to the sedate (seated) Hertz to soak up pianist Kaja Draksler and Terrie ‘Herrie’ Hessels of The Ex fame. Terrie likes his avant-garde experimental jazz. Of that there’s no doubt. He also likes doing things with his battered guitar. And the fact he was playing on a beautiful stage with superb acoustics didn’t go unnoticed. For Hessels movement is the key. Exploring the stage like some giant battery-powered toy that is beginning to understand the wonder of its own existence, The Ex man played joker to Draksler’s thoughtful prompts. Sonic deconstructions courtesy of the stage trap door, a biscuit tin, a spoon, fists and a drumstick followed. Draksler patiently built up softer, more tessellate patterns that Terrie in turn prodded back, like a dog dropping a ball in front of its master. Despite the music being - well, avant-garde jazz with a heavy predilection towards exploring atonal territories - the duo’s gig made for a mesmerising experience. Intense, but fabulously rewarding.
Feeling the need of some “light relief” we ran off to catch the pulsating boogiethon of South Africa’s BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), which had the audience in Tivoli’s main hall doing a nonstop version of The Bump. We were lost in the brilliance of the playing. Quite how one of the djembe players managed to clap along while drumming may be a secret only the ESA can unlock. The crowd went wilder, driven on by the promptings of some popping bass lines and siren call vocals. Feeling like the kid who has just eaten all the chocolate cake at his mate’s 6th birthday, we slunk off for the train, sated, mildly incredulous that such an experience could have happened.
Check back on Gigwise for Le Guess Who? day two review tomorrow (20 Nov)