A big congratulations for Le Guess Who? is in place this year because for ten consecutive years the festival brings new and exciting music to Utrecht. Since a few years the Le Guess Who? festival also gives the city an international buzz and for this reason alone, can’t be missed by people like us. We chose Saturday the 12th of November to be our festival night and here is how we experienced it.
Over the years Le Guess Who? cleverly offers renowned bands they want to book an opening to fill up parts of the general programming for themselves. This win-win situation attracted Julia Holter, Suuns, Savages and Wilco to be the 2016 curators. Especially Wilco’s presence is notable, because never before did a band with this stature played on the Le Guess Who? festival. As Wilco and friends opened on thursday and Savages took much of the friday programming for their account, Julia Holter was asked to curate the Saturday. Holter however had to compete with strong general program in which Dinosaur Jr., Cate Le Bon, Elza Soares, The Ex, Jameszoo and Witney made an appearance and had five of the seven acts she booked for tonight placed outside the festival’s main TivoliVredenburg venue. Her efforts therefore sadly fizzled away in the night.
Like always the best tactic to enjoy a pop festival to the fullest is to hit the ground running. And so we did, yet unfortunately after seeing three shows we came to an almost complete standstill for tonights beginnings were pretty dull. The psychedelic rock band of Black Mountain for example played a tight shift and almost thoughtlessly kept on stacking synths on riffs and vice versa without really connecting to the audience. A quick getaway to the Pandora where the Chicago hipster Ryley Walker played was unavoidable. Walker’s pastoral elegance did offer a nice listen for a brief moment but lacked any further form of excitement. Drowsy feelings took over the venue and only made girls want to cuddle with their play-cool boyfriends. Seems like a nice target market for some but, as you might have guessed, it’s not what we expect to see on a festival that claims to explore the edges of indie pop music. As Walker thanked the audience we started a long indoor walk through the still soulless corridors of TivoliVredenburg and eventually ended up seeing the girl of the hour: Julia Holter. In a reasonably-filled Vredenburg Holter hesitatingly started her gig by laying out papers from her keyboard on the ground. She seemed a bit nervous during her first notes but quickly picked herself up during her hit single ‘Feel You’. Holter’s intimate music is worth listening to but on the downside also fizzles away in the upper parts of the immense Vredenburg concert hall. After we relocated the mid-front all was balanced out neatly but again we felt unsettled as Holter’s heart-to-heart songs were not the thing we’re looking for tonight. We probably guessed wrong when selecting the bands we wanted to see yet, at that point of the evening, we also couldn’t escape the feeling that much of the fireworks was already lit during the previous evenings.
Fortunately we were wrong about that because in the Ronda stage the not-so-new alt rockers of Dinosaur jr. set the festival aflame. Under the command of the grey haired J Mascis the band, that was surrounded by ten Marshall amps, kicked off an explosive show in which different guitar layers overwhelmed the audience. In one and a half hours the trio jumped through their catalog: ‘The Lung’, ‘Feel The Pain’ and ‘Love Is…’ are welcomed by an audience of oldies and youngster who were clearly ready to rock. Although Mascis’ voice wasn’t strong on the high notes tonight and some technical difficulties interrupted the show at a few moments the band kept their cool. Murph’s drumming and Lou Barlow’s bass bass were molded together neatly in the whole and reached an absolute high point on ‘Freak Scene’ and ‘The Wagon’. Nostalgia aside, yesterday a 90s wall of straightforward guitar sound was needed to get things started and even got a small mosh pit going. Thank God for volume and natural distortion.
Onwards now to the last part of Cate Le Bon’s gig. The Welsh singer-songwriter weaved together bits of psychedelics and pieces of art rock in the Pandora. Together with a some high toned guitar plucking the songs shifed to form in a Deerhoof-like fashion. It’s clear that the audience that came for a party diden’t really know how react to this strange mix of styles. But what is strange yet nice at the same time needs to be cherished, right? Maybe Cate Le Bon would be a good choice to take up the role as curator for next years festival? At prime time the Dutch cutting edge punk band The Ex takes the stage in the Ronda. The trio is supported by an Ethiopian band they met during travels with whom they create a fascinating mix of ethno hypno punk. Traditional Ethiopian instruments, machine gun drumming, dancing and the bursty singing of Arnold de Boer all come together in harmony. Very refreshing.
As said in an earlier Le Guess Who? live review the arrival of the new TivoliVredenburg in 2014 had a negative effect on the festival’s atmosphere. With roughly 75 percent of the shows taking place in here people aren’t really challenged to go outside and enjoy the rest of Utrecht’s venue’s. On the other hand the cold department store-like environment and the high prices for refreshments could be just the reason to look further. Yesterday however a cold rainy night at first prevented us do so. But after a short break at de Willem Slok café around the corner (here beers a bought for a regular price) we decided to check out Horse Lords at 2 AM in EKKO...and, oh man, it was worth the short trip! It’s difficult to describe the gig but picture a small stage with some light smoke and four guys on it. One on guitar, one on drums, one on bass and one saxophone which he alternated with percussion. From here the ensemble creates a droning form of experimental jazz that drifts between the boundaries of bare minimalism to afro-krautrock forms of noise. During the show Horse Lords’ lead, saxophonist Andrew Bernstein, professionally works the band from peak to peak by using circular breathing to develop punishing hypnotic tones and patterns. It’s amazing to see how the dancefloor goes wild without any concessions. It makes Horse Lords the perfect ending to an imperfect evening at Le Guess Who? 2016.
Seen live on November 12th, 2016 @ TivoliVredenburg and EKKO, Utrecht:
- Black Mountain
- Ryley Walker
- Julia Holter
- Dinosaur Jr.
- Cate Le Bon
- The Ex
- Horse Lords