There’s no end to the parade of people who have wondered about what makes a good music festival, and most of us feel confident saying: “I’ll know when I see it.” So when you’re told that the one you’re heading to in The Netherlands has been partially curated by the Seattle drone metal band SUNN O))) — famed for playing at deafening soundscapes not otherwise heard outside horror movies and at volumes designed to perhaps empty your bowels (just a theory) – it adds a fascinating question to festival lineup nonconformity around the world. You soon realise that if you want to hear amazing innovation in music, you have to be willing to look beyond America and Europe. You have to acknowledge how American artists are more likely to experiment in front of a crowd who has just watched 74-year-old psychedelic rock veteran Arthur Brown sashay around in a blue velvet skirt screaming, “I am the God of Hellfire!”
Le Guess Who?, a four-day festival in the city of Utrecht, is an unprejudiced vehicle for musical discovery, and it’s just a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam. Here, Brazilian psych-rockers Os Mutantes can synchronize harmoniously with German krautrock band Faust or Bradford Cox can thrum out a back-to-back set of visceral improvisations under both Atlas Sound and Deerhunter monikers without confusing anyone. Hundreds of artists spread across 15 different venues, including galleries and churches situated among century-old gothic architecture and icy canals that will melt your heart. LGW? gives you reasons to return: the hospitable Dutch culture, the overwhelming bicycle-to-human ratio, the city’s natural beauty, and the depth and force of the music. According to festival founder, Bob van Heur, “Utrecht is like Amsterdam without the bullshit of Amsterdam,” and he couldn’t be more right. But here’s another reason: the endless opportunity for surprise.
The chance of stepping inside a venue and unexpectedly enjoying other genres, introducing yourself to new local Dutch bands (tip: Silver Ferns, Black Oak and Jo Goes Hunting) or hearing titans of rock (Titus Andronicus), jazz and classical megastars (Kamasi Washington, Charlemagne Palestine), and indie icons (The Notwist, Majical Cloudz) within hours of each other, shows us, in rich and bracing fashion, that the ways we cede our musical influence to notions of comfort should be questioned. As Le Guess Who? shows us, it improves upon the original face of festivals, highlighting its crucial themes (that we should all just get along harmoniously) while shaping music listening into something accessible and gripping.
Nine years in, and the Netherlands festival keeps cracking through the glass ceiling of eccentric music, honoring hundreds of underground bands and worshipping legendary ones. Like the question mark in its name, perhaps the only request Le Guess Who? Festival has the right to ask is, “Why the goddamn hell weren’t you there?
10. Songhoy Blues
Never mind the lack of space onstage at Utrecht’s Rasa venue. The hard-angled fusion of Tuareg desert rock, contemporary soul, and electric blues fusion from Mali-based deserters Songhoy Blues was plenty exhilarating. In fact, they manage to sound impressively at home, the entire set’s blistering bare-bones dance vibe exploding out of speakers in piercing high definition. The entire time I was standing in front, I was dancing next to Frederik who was blind (I didn’t know until his walking stick kept pounding the ground beneath us); it was a blessing to witness. With Songhoy’s drawing on sing-along chants, mid-tempo funk, and gyrating pyrotechnics from leader Aliou Touré jittering around the stage doing the moonwalk with hands raised up praising the musical gods, the energy was so palpable you could almost taste the crowd’s pounding, foot-stomping echoing up the floor to your teeth. Everyone was into it, and the fact that the Malian band had fled Islamic extremists who tried to ban all music in their hometown just made the inimitable life of their present performance all the more satisfying.
Ever since Denmark’s dark wave indie electronica band Efterklang decided to go on hiatus after their 2012 album, Piramida, my ears (like a prying neighbor) have been pressed up against the computer screen waiting for their return. Can you blame me? For such a modest bunch, they sure wear a lot of hats, and their new band, Liima (pronounced “Lee-Ma”), sounds like something you’d tip yours to. Featuring original members Mads Brauer, Casper Clausen, and Rasmus Stolberg with Finnish percussionist Tatu Rönkkö, it’s as if they’ve picked up where Efterklang’s full-length, Tripper, left off. Though, that’s a bit unfair to say; their warm pulsing beats and eclectic glass-jar drumming provide an introspective reflection on a collaborative newfound sound. A thread linking both outfits is that impeccable ear attune to all atmospheric potentials and locating the ineffable dull ache that sits at the base of so much upbeat electronica. With joyous abandon, they look genuinely thrilled to be playing music again, quietly grooving silhouettes lacing through the show’s lasers; it’s a heady brew flowing through the venue in pure electro euphoria.
Photo by Erik Luyten
Back in October, Detroit punk band Protomartyr’s frontman Joe Casey told me how excessive touring made the band more confident at playing their instruments. “They’re better and sharper,” he said. “Well, fuck yes you are!” I say. Today, they un-camouflaged any doubts as to whether emotional intimacy and eye-scorching riotous punk can work together, with a set likely to leave an impression on your heart. A potent sense of uplifting sorrow permeated through Casey’s sardonic delivery between sips of beer – a paradox only a band like this can get away with. The whole performance was a rare, stripped-down audit of regret, loss, and love, a jackhammer-hard rock foursome of volatile free-spirited rebels, who, no matter how loud they get onstage, never seem too intense. It’s rare in punk rock for a band to be both delicate and tough. “I’m going out in style,” Casey repeated at the end of “Cowards Starve”. and we believed him.
07. Kamasi Washington
Photo by Tim van Veen
Kamasi Washington humanizes the raw power and vital need for music. You’d figure the tenor saxophonist prefers to aim for the ears rather than the heart, but the tightly syncopated rhythmic assault from this Octet was performed with such immaculate precision and hyper speed that both drummers switched styles and tempos without missing a heartbeat. During The Epic’ s “Changing of the Guard”, Kamasi created a hybrid of Pharoah Sanders-Stan Getz-Johnny Griffin inventions while his keyboard player karate-chopped his keyboard at such speed that his entire body became a shadowy smudge. And when you’re sitting to music that you’re meant to physically exercise your sensory impulses to – that animalistic arm flailing I’ve become so good at – it’s only a truly unique experience like watching Kamasi that can penetrate deep into your body, mind, and soul.
06. Mikal Cronin
Photo by Juri Hiensch
Alone in the spotlight, Mikal Cronin thrummed his guitar, his trembling croon flying towards the art-deco ceiling of TivoliVredenburg’s Ronda venue while his 12-strong band looked on. It’s a skin-tingling moment, not just because of the timbre the venue added to Cronin’s lamenting voice, but because he looked so content to be there singing his song “(i) Alone”. He came ready to string the crowd along and shoe-horn them into his lovesick, docile rock heart, and by god was it superb. “I’ve never done this before, I’m a little nervous but excited,” said the California native about having a full horn and string section – trumpet, clarinet, sax, and flute – for the first time. It’s all there embroidering on the melancholy of “(ii)Gold”, adding a striking sadness to the concoctions of ’70s-flavored “I’ve Been Loved”, coloring in “Say” and “(vi)Circle”. Although the latter is string-free on the album, the troupe’s vibrant shading was utterly captivating. Not tooting anybody’s horn, but from garage punk DIY to this? I say he’s struck gold.