It was the tenth anniversary of the Le Guess Who? Festival, November 10th-13th, and a great edition of what is, arguably, the best festival in Northern Europe, not only if we have a look at the headliners but also the lesser-known artists that completed the line-up. Keep reading and you’ll understand.
The key of this year’s LGW? was the curation of the festival by different artists, with different approaches that covered a vast range of styles, although some genres like post-rock are still difficult to see there.
Curated by Wilco, William Tyler was the first surprise of the festival, with a sense of melody reminiscent of James Blackshaw. Even though he played in the big old amphitheatre of the Tivoli Vredenburgh, for an estimated 3,000 people, that was not a factor that played against him.
Going up the big building the Vredenburgh is, at the Pandora 75 Dollar Bill presented the audience with a special and particular take on… psych-blues, to put some label to it. Hints of noise, blues, space jazz, and some Northern African sounds made for a really interesting set.
While Wilco rocked it in the amphitheatre in a really good gig, by all accounts, for those who the biggest name in this festival was too overwhelming, they had two choices: Deerhoof, spectacular and contagious as always, or at the small Hertz venue Arnold Dreyblatt, who could be well described as one of the most important minimalist artists of this decade, mixing in a peculiar way classical passages with just the right amount of technology, or basically going both ways separately. One of the rare gems you find at the LGW?.
Lonnie Holley represented yet another twist in Wilco’s curation, with his cosmic and ethereal poetry and the bluesy sentiment he fills his improvised compositions with. A while later, Fennesz once again displayed those images of desolation, of the aftermath of an apocalypse that have influenced people like Apparat, for instance, in their Krieg und Frieden work of 2013.
The night ended with Preoccupations at the faraway venue Tivoli de Helling. The Canadians kept the energy of their previous incarnation (Viet Cong) while adding new electronic and electric elements, all at once, which resulted in a harrowing, urgent and dense set, with hints to both Swans and the most elegant ‘80s new wave. Nevermind the previous sentence, they sound way better than that.
Savages curated most of the second day of the festival, which started with Duke Garwood who, in a way, lost the impact of playing at the Janskerk (the Church of John), when he played there three years ago for Le Guess Who? (QRO photos), but that gained in proximity of the audience, who were able to feel the tension and richness of his new work, Heavy Love.
Savages’ set was hailed by most as one of the three best gigs of the festival, but when you don’t connect with a record like Adore Life (QRO review), it’s very difficult to feel a bond with them, no matter how energetic, passionate, loving, dedicated and devoted for their audience they may be. They really try to be close, but one can’t help but feeling something’s not right.
At the Janskerk, Mario Batkovic reminded of an accordion version of Lithuanian pianist Lubomyr Melnik, not in the sense that he was draining the energy of the listener, but because he used the acoustics of the church to transport you to a different location, possibly a 1920s horror movie, depending on the passage…
Jherek Bischoff was another pleasant surprise in the LGW?. Cinematic, delicate but always profound, the chatty artist was helped by a string quartet that was just hired that very same day to play his intricate compositions. He wasn’t effective all times, but one felt compelled to bookmark him as one of the artist to follow in forthcoming years.
Tara Busch, a.k.a. I Speak Machine, had this quality of the industrial music of stripping her… tracks (to put it like that) of all humanity, so when she adds her voice or a real melody, the sentiment can be felt way more than with a conventional piece of music. Not a cup of tea for most but unique as very few.
The Janskerk opened the third day of concerts, most of them curated by Julia Holter. Circuit des Yeux, the artistic alias of Haley Fohr, used the environment to her advantage by multiplying the dramatic effect of her deep voice and the glowing and somehow hopeful songs like “A Story Of This World”. One of those gigs you’d regret missing, this year.
The return of Black Mountain confirmed they are on the right path again, as proved by slow-burning melodies like “Line Them All Up”. Right after, Julia Holter herself played for a full house at the Ronda venue, but she only seemed to really stand out when she was on the minimalistic side of her repertoire. Her, say, pop side doesn’t really work.
What can you possibly ay about a gig by Dinosaur Jr? I mean, a totem of American indie rock that never fails, with a repertoire including “Get Me”, I Walk for Miles’ “Goin Down”, “I Told Everyone” or the most well known Cure cover of all time, “Just Like Heaven”… You can never go wrong with them.
At the high up in the Vredenburgh Cloud Nice room, the second gig by Circuit Des Yeux’ Haley Fohr, but now as her alter ego Jackie Lynn. The base of this set of songs comes from drum machines and some synthesizers, but with a pleasant mystery and oneiric feel to them. A bit darker than the main project but still interesting.
Suuns were responsible for the innovative side of the 2016 LGW? featuring names like Italian Alessandro Cortini, following the steps of the best Fennesz but with a twisted sense of space and sound. When you immerse yourself in this neck of the woods, you really understand why someone like Trent Reznor likes Cortini.
Last year they had visa troubles and couldn’t attend but this year Russia’s Phurpa were finally able to come to the Netherlands. How to describe them? Do you know Sunn O)))? Good, now imagine them as an acoustic, more traditional version of the Americans. Dirge-full chants meet Tuvan singing and metaphysical Tibetan tunes and instruments, but the voice is the main channelling element to their music, anchored in the tradition of the Russian steppe.
Anna von Hausswolff brought the monumental element to this last day of concerts. She just played two songs, since the very first lasted for a bit more than 20 of her 40-minute slot. Her arrangements are not sections with barely any relation between them but different perspectives of the same mood. She really will be heard of in the immediate future.
After 29 instrumental minutes, Michael Gira started singing in Swans’ gig. At this point in time, the best thing in their concerts is just to let go and be overwhelmed. Resistance is futile. They’re a steamroller of sound that never cracks.
We caught Jerusalem in My Heart whose dronic spiritual sounds of the Middle East revealed the cultural density of the region. Really worthy, even if for that we missed Tortoise.
It is a bit strange to see a concert with Stephen O’Malley where he only uses three amplifiers. But then again, St. Francis Duo require a different approach than Sunn O))). Chords, pedal effects, pounding drums and noise – and not necessarily an underworld progression of distorted harmonies – take the main stage here. You could even think of them as the really dirty cousins of The Dirty Three.
And last but really not least, Shye Ben Tzur, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express as Junun. So this heterogeneous mix of musicians from Israeli, Indian and English origins, resulted in a memorable celebration of multiculturalism, of the much-needed breaking down of barriers in these strange times. Ben Tzur was the main voice of it all whilst Greenwood took a place further back onstage so the attention was focused in the real heroes of the night. In what was the biggest crowd of the weekend (they played at the Amphitheatre), this was maybe the best ending of the LGW? We’ve witnessed in the five years we’ve ben covering the festival.
So, then years in, the Le Guess Who? closes another edition in great spirits and health. The only flaw we can think of is that, by condensing the vast majority of gigs at the Tivoli Vredenburgh, you barely feel compelled to go to other venues to see/discover/rediscover the lesser-known acts of his music venture.
If they can work on that, they’ll be virtually unbeatable in Europe.
-words: Abel Cruz