If you leave out the May Day editions, tonight its the eighth time Le Guess Who? will kick off in Utrecht (NL) again. The festival always offers a mixture of unknown and renowned indie acts during the last weeks of November and this year there is no exception on that. Personally, I’m always looking forward to Le Guess Who? because it brings a bunch of interesting artists to my doorstep. Luckily the festival organizers can’t complain about the attention from the Dutch media they’re getting these days and Sounds from the Darkside can’t be left behind on that, so during the coming days we will keep you posted about the festival’s proceedings.
Just for starters, the festival’s name was derived from a Canadian band from the seventies, The Guess Who which some of you know from the hit ‘American Woman’ and was an was an Canada-only affair. The festival’s programming was only focused at Canadian avant garde bands at the time, yet in the years that followed Le Guess Who? expanded its geography and grew out to a leading festival in The Netherlands hosting bands from all over the world. In the strict sense Le Guess Who? is no traditional pop festival at all. Firstly because there’s no terrain available for folks to camp at and secondly the festival doesn’t take place in the open air. Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone who’d want stay outside that during this time of year though. So, various nice and warm venues in downtown Utrecht serve as festival stages. Special about this edition is the recently opened TivoliVredenburg venue, which is the festival’s main stage for the first time. Apart from this change there is nothing to worry about when it comes to the festival’s line-up: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Einstürzende Neubauten, Mac DeMarco, tUnE–yArDs, Suuns, Sharon van Etten, Amen Dunes, Trans Am, Iceage and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are just a few of the dozen great bands who will make an appearance this weekend. Now thats enough backstory, if I may say so. Let’s prepare ourselves for some music…
Day one: reliving the First World War in a sterile department store
After picking up our wristbands in TivoliVredenburg it was time to head to the festival opener, Fumaça Preta, a diverse collection of musicians who mostly have South-American roots and are known for mixing up tropicalia, psychedelics and voodoo music. Seems like a jolly band to start with right?. Alas my festival jollyness was largely squashed after our ten minute hike, that correct, up to the Pandora room of the TivoliVredenburg which is situated far above street level. The climb of several long stairs, escalators and the crossing a narrow maze of empty white hallways significantly lowered my festival spirit. Le Guess Who? first night wasn’t sold out and planning the opening show in the far end of the TivoliVredenburg doesn’t seem as a smart choice of the organization. Oh well…after eventually arriving, Fumaça Preta already warmed up the well-filled Pandora with some groovy Caribbean rhythms. Fumaça Preta’s show was energetically set up but also eclectic as hell as you might expect from a band coming from Soundway Records. Tropicalia, psychedelics, groove and metal are rapidly interchanged. Although the quintet entertains, especially by the sensual dancing on the foreground, the rapid style changes don’t make me want to stay. Fumaça Preta’s playfulness is not really suitable as an opening acts but is a nice appetizer though.
So its time again to make our way down through ‘the sterile department store environment’ and find a seat in the large concert room Vredenburg for the evenings main event, Einstürzende Neubauten. For those of you who don’t know, Einstürzende Neubauten the German collective that has been around since the 80s and are seen as pioneers of industrial and noise rock. The collective, that’s led by singer-guitarist Blixa Bargeld and percussionist N.U. Unruh is famed for the use of custom-built instruments, that are predominantly made out of scrap metal and building tools. With chains on iron, smashing a rod on a metal plate and holding a drill to a spiral the show, or rather said, the piece of theatre, is opened and is hereafter followed by a German version of ‘God Save The Queen‘. Much of tonight’s performance is in the context of the First World War (1914-1918). On serval occasions Blixa lectures the audience about the events of the war. ‘Der 1. Weltkrieg’ twenty PVC pipes (one pipe for each participating country to the First World War) Blixa names all nations who had a part in it. Also the number of beats in this piece corresponds with the number of days the First World War took. Other social events from back then are also addressed by Blixa. Furthermore he sings ‘In De Loopgraaf’ in Flemish and is constantly supported by a small string section and a some weird looking ‘instruments’ along the way. The godfathers of industrial noise seem to be just a versatile as ever. Einstürzende Neubauten’s two hour performance therefore is impressive but drowns in its own evocation from time to time. Nevertheless it was a special experience, especially if you only know them from a few albums like me. With that Le Guess Who? 2014 opening evening is a worthy one and, fortunately, saved in the nick of time by the German collective.
From here EKKO is a short bicycle ride away were PAUS, a hard-hitting double drummed prog band, starts a show at midnight. EKKO is packed fort this one and after a few minutes in I completely understand why. PAUS, which means ‘wand’ in Portuguese, is pressing itself to its limits and tries to play the roof off the building. For the most part they’re very successful in achieving that, yet the show also is bit too tight. Apart from a few underlying afrobeat rhythms true magic is far from being found in this set. On top of that, the lead guitarist also breaks a string causing the band fall into monotonously improvisation which is carelessly added with some meaningless chanting of “ooh” and “aah”. The audience doesn’t give a hoot and keeps on dancing and claps along, so no pain there. PAUS’ exciting show is a nice break from Einstürzende Neubauten’s earnestness and moreover is a personal reminder not to peak early during day one of a festival…
Day two: a festival without sausages and screaming children
TivoliVredenburg’s programming had the most interesting names in it last night so location-wise our second day of Le Guess Who? was almost an exact copy of thursday. Around eight the Pandora was reserved for Mike Hadreas, or Perfume Genius. The Seattle-based singer-songwriter who released a new album two months ago was in good form tonight. Perfume Genius typical voice, that was added with some echo here and there, got the room quiet in an instant. Hadreas alternated fragile piano ballads of some older songs such as ‘Learning’ and ‘Mr. Peterson’ with his newer work which is more with more fierce but still dreamy. On its own the show was mediocre, yet Hadreas’ commitment, personal lyrics and the great acoustics of the room made the whole a nice performance to watch for a while.
Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy was next up in Ronda. Many things can be said about this great rootsy folk singer from Kentucky, however sometimes is best to let the man speak for himself. “We were told this was a festival so we thought that there would be sausages and screaming children”, a sharp but cheerful Will Oldham remarked after opening the show. Cheerfulness was the key word throughout the set. Frankly, at first I had a difficult time to accept that because a more introvert set I saw Oldham play in 2012 (backed by Angel Olson) still lives on deep in my heart. Tonight however, the band initially wavers between an introvertness (‘Embrace’, ‘A Beast for Thee‘) and brightness (‘May It Always Be’). From this point on the band is on a high and Oldham himself even jokes around with bassist David Ferguson. Strong, and almost catchy versions of ‘My Home is the Sea’, ‘So Far And Here We Are’ and ‘I See A Darkness’ are played out in a professional americana manner. Here I have to remark that the usually sober ‘I See A Darkness’ was a bit too likeable. But hey, as a Bonnie fan I can’t be too disrespectful right? After a joke and song from Ferguson, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy ends the set by a solid cover of The Everly Brothers’ ‘Omaha’. Where is Peyton Manning when you need him most huh?
Hereafter we decided to leave the queue at the stairs for Dean Blunt for what it was and directly went on to see blues legend Dr. John and his band The Nite Trippers. After a whipping introduction, “does anyone need a doctor!?”, and old man with two decorated walking sticks and a dark hat entered the stage and made his way towards the piano with a skull on top of it. Dr. John alas doesn’t face the audience in the beginning but seems in a good mood yet also seems tired. Luckily The Nite Trippers are full of energy and steal the show whereas Dr. John obediently fulfills his duty. After a few bluesy songs it was time to leave for Iceage, a young group of punk rockers. Once there Iceage was already on a collision course, playing the more messy songs from their debut album New Brigade (2011). On the first rows a small pit grows larger as setlist progresses to newer work. Meanwhile, lead singer Elias Rønnenfelt slaps his microphone cord in the face of a first row spectator and starts in the aggressive ‘Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled’ and continues with ‘Let it Vanish’. Rønnenfelt gives as much as he can, this to the satisfaction of the largely young audience. In full force the band ends the show and with that lives up to the expectation of being a nice live act.
A quick beer in RASA was enough to decide that the Rebel Up DJ-collective, who were pumping amplified African rhythms into a nearly empty hall, was not the thing we were looking for. On to Ekko for a nightly gig by Torn Hawk. Instead of a standard band outline we’ve been seeing all night, Torn Hawk are just two blokes sitting behind a desk tweaking around on laptops, pedalboards and an occasional distorted guitar. At a glance this seems uninteresting, yet Torn Hawk offers a visually and musically fascinating collage. On a big screen the guys project images from the 80s and hybridize the whole with colorful and detailed mosaics. Musically, grievous beats, hooky synths and the aforementioned hazy guitar create a crazy dreamish atmosphere. Some attendees take up the atmosphere for a dance, while most are just sucked into this constantly twisting and turning journey which becomes a bit tiresome at a certain point. Reason enough to call it quits for the day.
Day three: a memorable and elusive experience
In the Netherlands people are rapidly losing their religion causing the number of visits to sunday service to decrease. Hence, some churches become obsolete and are used for other goals, …such as pop concerts! Today, with the right programming a random Dutch church can be filled anytime. This is exactly what happened to the small Janskerk in the heart of Utrecht, which was all filled up on a saturday for pianist Hauschka. The relaxed-looking Hauschka started of with a fairly long anecdote about the time he traveled to the Into The Great Wide Open festival and heard about Le Guess Who? for the first time. If that wasen’t enough, he hereafter he explained his fascination for abandoned mining towns that are his inspiration for his latest album. Ok, that nice to know. But we’re here for some music. Luckily picked up this vibe from the audience and with, “… wait, this isn’t a talking concert” and a smile Hauschka and began his concert that isn’t that classic in anyway. Hauschka’s arrangements are played on a ‘prepared piano’ that lets him mix modern electronica with classic piano. A lonely bass drums, a heavy synth and meandering piano play fill up the Janskerk with a wonderful resonance. Within this ambient context a lot of people just close their eyes and nod their heads and are carried away to somewhere else. During the end of the show Hauschka leaves this comfort zone by isolating sounds of rubber bands tearing, falling ping-pong balls and sand scraping to wake everyone up. In a church this sounds nice but adds little to his hypnotizing set. Setting this aside Hauschka still delivers an unbending opening for Le Guess Who’s? full saturday.
A few blocks away, the Moira galleria, was the decor for the all-girl band The Coathangers. On a small stage surrounded by a handful of enthusiasts three girls played some old fashioned punk. Whilst alternately changing their instruments among each other, The Coathangers screamed the lungs from their bodies until the end of the show. The unanimous call for an encore had to be declined for reasons of programming, this to the displeasure of the band. With no reason to stay in Moira we walked up to ACU which opened its doors for tonights Le Guess Who? festival with a gig from Yonatan Gat. According to the festival guide, Gat’s style is best described as “Jimi Hendrix-meets-Godzilla”, and with that in mind we were lured into the ACU. In the part of the performance we saw, we rarely heard influences of Hendrix and not to speak about Godzilla’s input in this. Instead Yonatan Gat’s gig was all about fast punk drumming and a highlife guitar and to us not really interesting in the long run. So after twenty minutes in, we’ve had enough, and some to spare.
Because the festival’s logo is a huge question mark I have one question for you to answer before reading on. Here goes: “Which of the following events took place in the TivoliVredenburg on saturday the 22th of November 2014?”:
A) A performance in the Ronda stage was completely set in the dark.
B) The fire alarm went off.
C) Some artists demanded the closing of the bars for artistic reasons.
D) All of the above answers are correct.
Now take your pick, keep it in mind and read on.
Percussionist Frank Wienk, aka Binkbeats made his live debut on Le Guess Who? this saturday. Binkbeats brought his complete set vibraphones, harps, samplers, bells, xylophones, cymbals, turntables and various percussion instruments to TivoliVredenburg’s main stage and solely covers work from famed artists in the electronica scene. At the time we entered the main stage Binkbeats wasn’t able the grasp the attention of the audience because of this subdued vibraphone play. His version of ‘Windowlicker’ by Aphex Twin however did stir up the audience though. Looping his own voice and a sampling a few of the aforementioned instruments make ‘Windowlicker’ a whole new, yet familiar experience. Wienk, continues steadily like a scientist who has an unbreakable concentration, executing loop after loop after loop and eventually bursts out with bass that makes the entire main stage sake for several minutes. Binkbeats’ debut isn’t very spontaneous but on the other hand is an addition to the festival’s line-up. Another addition to the festival is Swans. Swans role in this years edition is significant because next to a performance with the entire band, frontman Michael Gira got the chance to organize a mini-festival within Le Guess Who?, called Mouth to Mouth. That’s nice thing to do of course but the full two-hour performance of the band itself is still the biggest magnet for the most of us. Swans is not known for making the most accessible music. I frankly, can’t listen to studio albums for a long time but have to confess that the bands live performance is rock solid. Immerse versions of ‘The Apostate’ and ‘Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)’ are impressively powerful. Alas we don’t have any time to waste, for a short drinking break and a walk to Tim Hecker’s gig in Pandora was planned, only if it wasn’t for a sudden fire alarm throughout the building that urged people to go outside…
Of course nobody acted on the alarm, especially when it became known that it was false. According to a security guard some theater smoke got caught up in an elevator shaft setting off the alarms. Hecker therefore was never reached and instead we chose to stay close stay to the Ronda for another presumed festival highlight, the British techno-duo Autechre. ‘Light’ was a a bit of a thing during this show that started in the dead of night. On forehand visitors we’re warned that on request of Autechre bars would be closed, doors would be shut and Ronda would be out-on-out dark. So Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy was right all along! Anyway, what happened was this: a desk with some monitors was prepared and two lads walked in connected their laptops and the walked off the stage again. Lights went out and presumably the same two guys walked towards the laptops and pumped in the most complex yet fascinating live techno set I ever heard. Oh, techno is not the right label for what Autechre is about, they are far beyond that point. Nowadays the duo combines deep dubstep basses, patches of breakbeat to an inimitable melting pot of highly complex rhythms. Stomping beats, industrial and razor-sharp synths were hammered into the Ronda without any remorse. Everything small detail of a sound falls apart but is interestingly enough still a part of a larger whole. It’s like listening to a puzzle with the wrong pieces that’s still something coherent. And all of this was done in the dark, so all there was left to do was listen and stare into the void. 60 minutes later the lights went up again and Autechre punctually stopped their merciless show. Without any interaction with the audience they disconnected their laptops and walked off stage again like two tourists. A show without seeing anything, hmm, that’s pretty elusive right?
So the correct answer to my question was D and I hope you guess was a good one. Anyway, I believe this saturday on Le Guess Who? was a memorable one. Before I forget, the 24-hour Dronefest started in de Pandora at midnight and is still going as I’m writing this. We checked it out after Autechre, yet it seemed like a boring zombie sit-in at that moment, so we were quick to get away.
Day four: saved in overtime by widespread enthusiasm
The most famous bands are usually planned on the last day of regular festivals, for Le Guess Who? this is very different because. Sunday has always been problematic day to programm for festival management. Same goes for this day four, which again was not generous in staging appealing names. One or maybe two names seem worth going to but thats really about it. Le Guess Who? goes into overtime with what’s leftover and we all know nobody likes overtime. Unless that overtime period happens to be spectacular…
Our expectations on a spectacle coming from Suuns & Jerusalem In My Heart were low. In a earlier post we already noticed the band’s pretentiousness turn to art rock and advised you to not believe the hype. Todays show was a grotesque continuation of what we already knew. Suuns brought Jerusalem In My Heart’s Radwan Gazi Moumneh with them and tried to mix up Arabic influences with their drone-y sound. It didn’t work out, Moumneh’s role was too small and Suuns itself were pulling up soundscape after soundscape with no apparent goal. There’s nothing Arabic to that… Musically they seemed stuck in their self created floaty form of ambient, and a strobe overkill had nothing to add as well. The stage was still half full well before the show ended and I also wondered if I wasted my precious time here. Well, actually we didn’t. The tUnE–yArDs were well on their way building a party, a party in front of full crowd that hardly was dancing that is. I’m still a bit in the unclear why this was the case. For one, the performance was solid with strong some percussion and some high toned singing of Merrill Garbus in a red latex dress. Also almost all songs were in a uptempo and the audience was young. I admit, during the hit ‘Gangsta’ I saw three young lads jumping up out of pleasure, and that was that. Maybe tUnE–yArDs’ music and appearance is just too childish for todays young adults? At least for me this was exactly the case.
A trip through a desolated TivoliVredenburg was needed to visited the 24 -hour Dronefest again. The earlier mentioned zombies had expanded their territory and now were lying all over the floor enjoying Steve Hauschildt’s ambient and Atari-like visuals. I guess they deserve to be lying after 21-hours of droning, right? Within a minute or three I was completely bored out by Hauschildt so the visit to Dronefest again came to an early end.
Back to Vredenburg it is for St.Vincent. Hearing a throat back voice resembling Stephen Hawking in the dark was probably the biggest scare I had during Le Guess Who? After the lights went up a tight-looking St.Vincent, or in real life Annie Clark, began her show with the glittery sounding ‘Rattlesnake’. St.Vincent proved she isn’t only about glitter pop and also added a faint but raw edge to her music by means of her electric guitar. As the show progressed it also became clear that everything about the experience was carefully planned, even the long monologue about hope. Clark stays within her own drawn lines and never breaks out of her role. Alright, it’s nice to watch but thats it about all there is to it. Even the clapping along of the audience seems like mandatory affair. St.Vincent’s show would fit better on a saturday night if you ask me, however an anonymous source told us Clark demanded to play on sunday because she wanted to meet Selda, a legendary Turkish protest singer with roots stretching back to the 70s, who was staged later this evening. Could Selda prevent the evening from ending in all out disappointment?
The booking of Selda is perhaps the smartest choice the programmers of Le Guess Who? made this edition. It’s common for festival’s like this to be packed with caucasian folk who traditionally have a love for rock music or electronica. The Netherlands does have a significant minority of Turks living within its borders that are not interested in this kind of ‘white music’ but are more close to their own musical ethnic background. So the programmers thought, “who would visited a slowly expiring indie pop festival on a cold November sunday? And someone said: Turks!” And to my own astonishment they were right. During last hours of Le Guess Who? a gradual ethnic change took place and white hipster and young Turkish folks (mostly couples) intermingled with only one goal in mind, and that was to party! Before the grand lady showed herself it was Baba Zula’s job to warm up Ronda. With a bunch of turkish traditional instruments and garbs the band improvised themselve to a new highs taking the audience with them along the way. Were tUnE–yArDs failed Baba Zula succeeded to get the feet from the ground and I tell ya, there was a lot of ass shaking going on as well. Especially the bağlama player had a big role in the show for he was dancing around in among the audience and started a participatory ‘hey’ in the end. Hereafter the ground floor of the Ronda filled up for Selda ft. Boom Pan. The latter was flown in from Tel Aviv to support Selda but started the show without her and played some easygoing surf music. Three songs later Selda got on stage and was met by a wild crowd. The 66-year old lady began her act is style with a overwhelming version of the 70s classic ’Yaz Gazeteci Yaz’ which was abundantly sung along by the Turkish part of the audience. Tirelessly Selda continued her performance and played psychedelic versions of Turkish folk songs such as ‘Meydan Sizindir’, ‘Ince, Ince’ and ‘Mehmet Emmi’. In between her singing a few guys in the audience also surprised Selda with several bouquets of flowers, it’s clear, Selda is big in Turkey. Me and let’s say the other half of the audience didn’t understand a word of Selda’s singing but didn’t feel left out at all. At some point I really thought I was attending a concert in Istanbul. In deep overtime the widespread enthusiasm for an imposing Selda saved the festivals closing day and if that wasn’t enough… Selda was summoned back onstage three times by the audience and ended the performance, indeed, in style with the song she opened with.
Le Guess Who? 2014 lived up to its reputation of being one of the most divers festival The Netherlands knows. However, what made this edition different from other years? Indeed, the TivoliVredenburg was new and great when it comes to sound quality but very weak when it comes to festival atmosphere. Utrecht has much more to offer so I would recommend to keep programming in only one stage here, the Ronda, and spread the rest of the acts over other parts of Utrecht´s inner city. This weekend my musical taste caused me to spend too much time in TivoliVredenburg ascending and descending stairs and escalators. Also I urge the organization to stop promoting the festival on certain early evening talkshows, I just don’t like things I cherish to get too populair too fast.
When viewed from the musical side I think Le Guess Who? 2014 will alas soon become a distant memory. The line-up wasn’t that progressive and thus not interesting enough. Of course there are some exceptions, on thursday Einstürzende Neubauten impressed and Autechre intrigued on saturday but thats about it. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Iceage and the surprising Coathangers were lesser gods in this sense. Then there is Selda, who deserves to be named as the festival’s honorable note, although I strongly believe her booking was in fact more a tactical move that, with some luck, played out well for the organization. I wonder which immigrant culture will be selected next year by programmers to close the festival? We’ll see. For now Sounds from the Dark Side thanks you for following us around this weekend. We hope you enjoyed our writings and hope you will check in soon for more music reviews!
Seen live from November 20th to the 24th 2014 at TivoliVredenburg, EKKO, Janskerk, Moira and ACU, Utrecht:
- Suuns & Jerusalem In My Heart
- St. Vincent
- Baba Zula
- Selda ft. Boom Pan
- The Coathangers
- Yonatan Gat
- Fumaça Preta
- Einstürzende Neubauten
- Perfume Genius
- Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
- Dr. John & The Nite Trippers
- Torn Hawk
Suuns on Secretly Canadian
Jerusalem In My Heart official site
tUnE-yArDs official site
I Love St. Vincent official site
Baba Zula official site
Selda on Discogs
Hauschka official site
The Coathangers on Tumblr
Yonatan Gat official site
Binkbeats on Youtube
Swans on Young God Records
Autechre on Discogs
Torn Hawk official site
Icage on Blogspot
Dr. John & The Nite Trippers official site
Bonnie ‘Prince’Billy official site
Perfume Genius official site
Fumaça Preta official site
Einstürzende Neubauten official site
PAUS on Facebook
Le Guess Who? official site
Le Guess Who? on Facebook
Le Guess Who? on Twitter
Le Guess Who? 2014 on Spotify
TivoliVredenburg official site
EKKO official site
RASA official site
ACU official site
Moira official site
Janskerk official site
Review by Wander Meulemans // 20-251114