“We travel the spaceways from planet to planet,” Marshall Allen and Tara Middleton sang, decked out in dazzling Egyptian-esque accoutrements, leading one of the world’s preeminent free jazz bands. Considering the chaos and darkness of the surrounding world, it’s no wonder Sun Ra Arkestra and so many other acts at this year’s edition of Le Guess Who? hoped to subvert it, whether by tearing it apart and examining it or creating a new world outside of it. As has proven to be the essential quality of the Utrecht, Netherlands-based festival, there was a real intentionality and care put into the art.
Whereas other festivals put a lot of focus on other amenities, Le Guess Who? feels squarely focused on music. That comes, in part, from having artists act as curators; there’s at once a sense of community, of choices made to complement and create an atmosphere rather than drive up attendance and ticket sales. That’s especially true, considering this year’s curators: Perfume Genius, James Holden, Jerusalem in My Heart, Grouper, Han Bennink, and Shabazz Palaces. The six acted as a solar system, their chosen acts constellations that intersected and drew festival-goers along on their journey together further out into the stars.
The bill was crammed with jazz and improvised music legends that may not have made any other festival lineup, but instead made major splashes in Utrecht: Sun Ra Arkestra, Linda Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders, ICP Orchestra, Peter Brotzmann, and more held inspirational sets. Artists dealing in the darkest, most explosive depths of emotion were common — whether in the feral pained screams of Pharmakon or the brokenhearted realism of Mount Eerie.
This year’s Le Guess Who? also held a strong current of empowering black artists, from jazz and Afrofuturist visionaries to modern artists reflecting on progress made and the progress still needed, such as Moor Mother, Matana Roberts, and curators Shabazz Palaces themselves, as well as a screening of The Invaders documentary regarding a militant civil rights group and readings from a Black Power Tarot deck from King Khan. It’s unlikely that the curators came together to build these themes, but it’s entirely telling that they emerged. Considering the racial justice issues and need for vocal opposition to oppressive societal norms, Le Guess Who? felt like a thriving community capable of making a difference. In honor of the festival’s 11th edition, we ranked the 11 most thrilling experiences of the long, beautiful weekend in Utrecht.
Click through to read up on our top sets of the weekend and see our photo gallery.
While his tunes have always held a classic brass, Kevin Morby has really embraced the burnished Western songwriter aura, the red dust and the gold buckle in equal measure. The stage at the massive Grote Zaal featured a spray of flowers attached to his microphone stand, a white cowboy hat hung at a jaunty angle, and the man himself wore a black suit bedecked with white musical notes. There’s a bit of irony to the showmanship, but it doesn’t deplete the Western warmth any in performance. Eminently hooky songs like “I Have Been to the Mountain” and “Harlem River” ran deep and powerful like a rushing river, the crowd riding the feeling to a crooning high. Many left the great hall at TivoliVredenburg singing back their own preferred chorus under the low-hanging moon, the Utrecht evening feeling like a Texas night — though just a bit colder.
Han Bennink & Thurston Moore, Keiji Haino, and Peter Brötzmann
As early as the 1960s, jazz drummer Han Bennink played host to musical legends visiting the Netherlands, playing with everyone from Sonny Rollins to Eric Dolphy. In the ’80s, he started working closely with The Ex, further diversifying his absurd talent with the Dutch rock heroes. That homegrown, eccentric network makes Bennink the perfect curator for Le Guess Who? and led to some of the most fascinating sets of the weekend, chief among them duo performances with Keiji Haino, Thurston Moore, and Peter Brötzmann.
Bennink’s winking, limber drumming has proven a perfect match for Haino’s mercurial performance in the past, and that was no exception here. While the 75-year-old Dutchman quickly propped his leg up onto his snare in between tom hits, the silver-maned Haino smushed a basketball along the strings of his guitar, turning quickly mid-scream to bounce it against an acoustic dangling from the ceiling, attached by a cord at its neck. Moore, meanwhile, hung over his instrument, long hair dangling down as his fingers loped over strings; Bennink hunched over his kit, drumstick lodged between his teeth as he splashed at a cymbal and muted it with his other hand. Last, free jazz legend Brötzmann and Bennink returned to their roots on the former’s watershed Machine Gun, the saxophonist flitting and flopping across an immense range, drums chasing the whole way. The key to all of this, of course, is that Bennink makes each musician with which he plays sound better and, in turn, shines plenty himself. All great improvisational musicians communicate well, but Bennink speaks in so many different languages, chuckling all the while at jokes that connect somewhere in the ether beyond.
Moor Mother’s set was scheduled for Cloud 9, but by the first moment of electronic burn and Camae Ayewa’s steely gaze, it was clear that this performance wouldn’t be comparable to anything heavenly. Ayewa is far too concerned with exposing the injustice, pain, and terror of the present. “How do you find joy in the struggle?” Ayewa repeated, somehow both enraged at the possibility and seeking an answer. Moor Mother demanded to be heard to the point that hecklers were urged to leave if they couldn’t just listen. “Did you see it on the news?” Ayewa repeatedly asked later in the set, reciting details of a young man shot by police and left dead in the street. Throughout the set, one of the members of the Invaders (a black militant group, on which a documentary was based that was also screening at the festival) stood front and center, holding up his phone for photos and nodding appreciatively. It was at once beautiful to see protest this powerful, but also tragic that it’s still so ultimately necessary. That duality is essential to the entrancing, concussive power that is Moor Mother.
Bathed in red light, Sudan Archives stood tall on the Cloud 9 stage, limbs angled in a structure designed to support the elegant movements of fingers and violin bow. The Cincinnati, Ohio-born musician radiated a honeyed calm, smiling from behind her soft-blue sunglasses, doling out near-seamless compositions with a mystic depth. Her violin tones evoke Northeast Africa, but she is far more than a pastiche artist; Sudan Archives is a project built on emotional resonance and intelligent reinterpretation. She fused intricate violin pieces with electronic tools, as if ripping a hole in the space-time continuum just as easily as she does merely through her powerful presence, an undeniable aura that permeated the space. Sudan Archives has an ethereal ability to zing right into the heart, a strength that transcended even the windy cold of a Utrecht night.
Amadou & Mariam
The ? in Le Guess Who? isn’t just there for fun this year. Festival organizers had a few surprises in the cards, leaving the crowds dizzy with breathless anticipation. Much of the conversation throughout the first day of the festival — in a handful of different languages and accents — centered on what delirious mystery could be hiding behind the question mark placed delectably in the middle of the Thursday schedule. Upon entering the confines of Grote Zaal, the entrancing melodies of Malian duo Amadou & Mariam proved the most dazzling revelation. The room bounced and shook with polyrhythmic delight, the packed crowd reveling in an experience far more groove-centered and ecstatic than much of the more contemplative material that they’d spent the day with. Between a dabbing backup vocalist, a pair of percussionists pushing things feverishly ahead, Mariam’s smiling, soaring voice, and Amadou’s seemingly never-ending guitar solos, the gleeful performance felt like a warm hug. Fresh off their eighth album, Amadou & Mariam continue to deliver the immaculately detailed yet beautifully organic feel-good tunes that provide the most amazing surprises.
At one point during Shabazz Palaces’ set, a video of a person climbing out of an inky, black hole acted as background for the duo’s Afrofuturist hip-hop. Stepping into the Pandora venue felt a lot like that intergalactic movement, re-emerging in a world where bass drums hit harder, the smoke lingers longer, and voices echo into the soul. Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazarro, fka Butterfly of Digable Planets) and Tendai “Baba” Maraire leaned heavily on their recently released dual albums, to great affect. The blitzing “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” off Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines hit an early high, paired brilliantly with a retro video promoting the onset of the internet, while deep cut “Kill White T, Parable of the Nigga Who Barrels Stay Hot” featured the loudest bass I’d heard all festival long. In a festival heavy on interstellar atmosphere and deep consciousness, Shabazz Palaces ripped a hole in the continuum and invited everyone along for the ride.
After masses of people got stuck waiting outside of Pandora in hopes of seeing Shabazz Palaces on Saturday, it seemed like absolute folly to catch any of the set from indie darlings tUnE-yArDs without having staked out a spot hours earlier. And while the room was packed to the gills with groove-happy festival-goers, the atmosphere during Merrill Garbus’ set proved deliriously giddy, welcoming any and all newcomers as eager to bounce along to songs from the upcoming I can feel you creep into my private life as fan favorites like “Bizness”. In fact, some of that new material may have even topped the highest of tUnE-yA-rDs’ heights. “It’s a new one, but pretend you’ve heard it many times before,” Garbus smiled as way of introduction for her band’s closing song — an unnecessary request, considering the infectious house beat and disco flash. Garbus’ intricately looped vocals have always played out like samples ready made for a dance cut, only now she’s constructing that track herself without losing any of the eccentricity or heart.
“Catharsis is upon us,” Sevdaliza tweeted not long after finishing her transcendent set at the Pandora stage. From the first moment of her triumphant set, it was clear that the Iranian-Dutch pop artist would be performing with every atom of her being. Over mutating strains of electronic percussion, drums, synths, and a live string section, Sevdaliza bent backwards and contorted her arms in surreal arcs. At the entrance of a particularly lithe and stretchy backup dancer, her emotionally charged words suddenly gained a target and weight. When she pushed him away, the weight of her entire body rested in her fingertips, nails impressed clearly on his skin. When the two were riding the waves of intense longing, her arms seemed to stretched forever in an attempt to reach him. “Hubris” and “The Language of Limbo” proved to be crowd favorites, proof of the depths of emotion she can evoke, even with the simplest of lines. Sevdaliza is a consummate performer, one who can convey feelings above and beyond even our comprehension of experience.
Unlike every other performance at Le Guess Who?, Mount Eerie’s Friday night performance at Jacobikerk required tickets — and, in big bold lettering, a note about the emotional context of the performance requiring early arrival and considerate attention. Phil Elverum has performed sparingly since the passing of his wife, Geneviève Gosselin; the songs that came from that experience, A Crow Looked at Me, address it in an incredibly direct manner, as if directly into the listener’s ear, yet the idea of a man actually singing “Real Death” to an eager crowd of hundreds seemed too much to bear.
But there he was, standing at the front of the massive church, guitar in hand. “Death is real/ Someone’s there and then they’re not/ And it’s not for singing about/ It’s not for making into art,” Elverum sang, his eyes clear, resting slowly on the floor, the ceiling, the guitar strings, an empty patch of air. Song after song, the man behind Mount Eerie put some sense of form to the absolute chaos and terror of loss, a feeling of logic that could fall apart at any moment just like his life had.
From the first lines, tears permeated the pews, sniffling and strained breathing the norm throughout the remainder of the performance. Elverum, meanwhile, hung lightly on his toes, rarely wavering in his vocal tone and never missing a guitar strum, yet more fragile and considered than bold. After delivering many of the songs from A Crow Looked at Me, Elverum went on to perform songs he’s written since, songs that referenced the difficulty of playing those album songs, of what it’s like to play them at festivals, of talking songwriting with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty on the road as a momentary distraction from the pain. There were some laughs there, mixed with the tears, but still plenty more tears, because, of course, death is still real. Upon announcing the end of the set nearing, a fan shouted out in dismay. Elverum’s response was to check his watch and offer a particularly calm and certain: “It’s time.” Finality like that can be pain, escape, safety, anxiety; no matter what emotional reaction, it is certain.
Only the most talented artists can pull off high drama and arch comedy, and after getting tangled in his microphone cord and slipping to the floor, Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas yet again proved he is of that high caliber. The increasingly captivating vocalist immediately turned the potentially bothersome moment into a sultry pose, scissoring his legs in the air and rolling up to his feet. “I’m glad I fell within the first few minutes,” he chuckled, but only that once during his impeccable performance of “Otherside”. “It would’ve been worse if I’d built it up,” he added. Between every heartfelt and impeccably performed song, Hadreas was more than ready to compare his dance moves to a flying squirrel or his need for an excessively large bath towel on stage for a demand “to feel as close to the spa experience as possible.” There’s been a Mary Margaret O’Hara cover in the Perfume Genius repertoire for a while, and his take on “Body’s in Trouble” felt all the more impactful knowing Hadreas had curated a lineup with O’Hara appearing on the Grote Zaal stage immediately prior. At this point, the Perfume Genius concert experience gains more depth and gravity, Hadreas’ voice continues to grow stronger and more confident, and his smirking banter gets even better. With all of that in the back pocket of his crisp, gold tracksuit, Hadreas should continue his ascent to the heights of pop power.