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.
05. Gaye Su Akyol
Photo by Tim van Veen
A borderline seductive slice of psychedelic rock from Istanbul-based Gaye Su Akyol hit the spot. Gliding across the stage like FKA Twigs if she sung classical Turkish music (Türk Sanat Müziği) and added a little more rock to her branches, Akyol’s captivating stage presence resembles a 1920’s singer who has escaped the stage. Balancing modern rock composition with traditional Arabic-influenced Turkish songs, her album, Develerle Yaşıyorum (I’m Living with Camels), oscillates between echoing electric guitars and ’70s echo-drenched vocals. Her show was a mid-afternoon jubilee of avant-garde western folk, rock, and pneumatic funk, twisted with a crafty skill to hook and reel you in.
04. Extraordinary Returns…
Photo by Juri Hiensch
There aren’t many people who can say they stood rattling between the grungy walls of De Helling venue on a Friday night while The Crazy World of Arthur Brown played an extended version of “Fire” to a sweaty gobsmacked crowd, the very same song they performed in the Top of the Pops studio in 1968. A wormhole into another universe, the scene became a riot of dramatic costume changes while face-painted, and definitely stoned, English musical icon Arthur Brown acted like a Babushka doll uncovering one costume at a time: Japanese red-velvet kimono, a long Spanish dress, a full warlock-tale royal cape fashioned out of neon lights. TCWAB were the torchbearers for the days when psychedelic obsessives collided head-on with punk. At 73, Brown stepped out screaming, “I am the God of Hellfire!” and it’s that moment you remember he’s immortal, cracking the nut of his own wild possibility. “There’s a darkness between your thighs,” he said slyly before skating across the stage on invisible ice, dancing the backwards running man as agile as Usain Bolt, straight into a crazy fan flailing his arms about. It was hard to imagine a better way to experience this music – a body-banging, emotionally thrilling headfuck.
Then came the intriguing swirl of legendary 63-year-old Jamaican artist Dawn Penn on Saturday night at Rasa venue. “She overcome a male-dominated musical industria, and she’s still here, power to the woman!” introduced her excitable Atlanta cap-wearing keyboardist before she took the stage. The reggae glaze and propulsion of her set, all soaked in painterly covers – Cat Steven’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, Erykah Badu’s “On & On”, All Saints’ “Never Ever”, and Dido’s “Thank you” — made her 1967 hit “No No No (You Don’t Love Me)” still startling to hear. While Penn slipped seamlessly from a cavernous Marcia Griffiths-like howl into a vivacious Mary J.Blige lilt, she achieved an elaborate sing-along with the ecstatic crowd. While sashaying around the stage with her floor-length, thick dreadlocks, she reaffirmed she’s a genuine hard-living legend, whose oratorical singing and blunt dissection of Jamaican life is still a strange brew of poetic drive for the country’s reggae revolt.
This Venn diagram has a centerfold, and it’s the festival’s final day laureate of blended psychedelic funk, jazz, and pioneering synthesizer, Annette Peacock, and her freewheeling poetic rampage. Before the 74-year-old singer even appeared for this rare performance, people hovered around the lip of the stage ready and waiting. After taking LSD under the watchful gaze of Timothy Leary in the early ’60s, she persuaded Robert Moog (inventor of the Moog synth) to give her a prototype of a moog machine, which explains her youthful fury, authority, and wisdom on all embellished musical matters. Taking her seat at the spotlight piano center stage, “I love you too,” she responded to the crowd’s cheers, “and I don’t even know you.” With seductive synth surging through her expansive and simple piano melodies, the entire set was as burning and delicate as it was commanding and uncluttered. Forty years on, her music is of a future that hasn’t happened yet.
03. Titus Andronicus
Photo by Erik Luyten
Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles stepped to the mic, the volume twitching mid-soundcheck. “We’re an American band!” he declared, and bang, we were deep in it already. The set was every bit as sprawling as on his recent The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the 29-track, five-act, absorbing punk opera – but now more torn apart and insistent. Like a fisherman sucking the pin from a grenade and chucking it out to sea in order to fish, an urgency and ranting impatience found the inimitable frontman pushing notes out with a force that makes you marvel at the fact he hasn’t fainted yet. “Fatal Flaw”, “Dimed Out”, and “Still Life with Hot Deuce and Silver Platter” were ferocious, emotional, and life-affirming; the latter unwound at a dizzying pace, and the former took shape once the band bent into an aisle with their guitars, locking into a lean, linear, and impossibly tight punk human passageway. This choreography was the first of repeated detonations, every lyric accompanied by energetic and raw guitar punches that made it difficult to accept that there were real humans onstage, given their musical precision and sheer lack of inhibition.
02. The Notwist
Photo by Erik Luyten
What does it take to hoist a skilled band into something transcendent? Who bloody knows, but a combination of a crowd swelling well beyond the limits of the TivoliVredenburg Groote Zaal stage (and it’s fucking huge) while watching a pillar of experimental indie rock – the legendary German band The Notwist – delivering a near two-hour set of their breakout hits sprawling nearly three decades did the trick. In a voice that used the space to reflect that long lifespan, Markus Archer sang over self-deprecating pop with a defiant cadence in a mid-level register like Ben Gibbard without the whine. Their stamina evident, the group shifted through passages of their categorical post-rock, techno, and glitchy-pop past, through the nostalgia of 1998’s “Chemicals”, 2002’s “Pick Up the Phone”, and 2008’s “Gravity”. The band broadcasted emotional rebellion in a gripping set of mounting drum storms and sudden drops to silence, lifted by their gifted ability to mold instruments like clay.
01. Janskerk Church: Julia Holter, Majical Cloudz
Photo by Jelmer de Haas
“With what’s been happening in Paris, we’re gonna start the set off with a song that’s not actually my own. Not all of my songs were sufficient. I just wanted to find someone else’s words to get to a place of closure this week.” And that’s how Julia Holter made us cry amidst the 11th century grandeur of Janskerk Church, Utrecht. Even so, there couldn’t be a better backdrop for Holter’s pocket choirs than within the 900-year-old walls on a frosty winter’s evening. That’s typical of Holter’s knack for shaking up the norm, symbolic in the way her music quivers with an emotional force that pulls from the unpredictable. The billowing translation of her work was striking to see live — in the way Holter filled the church with an enormous, loving presence during her tribute to Paris (Karen Dalton’s “My Love, My Love”) and in the way “Silhouette” is, according to her, “a song about slowly going insane, starting from a peaceful place, then ending with an explosion of insanity.” We found Holter only occasionally breaking her scrunched-eyed focus to march over the keys laid out in front of her, but in the end, it was her voice – a light, fragile thing echoing and expansive, intimate and heartrending all at once.
It’s as if Devon Welsh’s voice has no beginning or end. The sheer drama of Janskerk Church aside, the most affecting part of seeing Majical Cloudz in a live setting is the hypnotic way in which one loses track of time. Those piercing, jittery eyes burned through the air, and after a few seconds of building vocal layers, they melted away and it was impossible to link the sound to the image of him. The boundaries between “I’ll write you into all of my songs” and “I’m going crazy, crazy for you” during “Downtown” were almost visible until producer Matthew Otto’s keyboards brushed under the words, washing away any tangibility like a cool sea meeting the ankles. The set proved to be an answer to the question posed by their latest album’s title, Are You Alone? Welsh always seems private, and sitting in a room full of people listening to him, you feel solitary in your thoughts. Heck, if that isn’t the picture-perfect epitome of what real music should do, I don’t know what is.