Laying comfortably in the shadow of Amsterdam is the chilled-out university town of Utrecht, where the red light district is gladly a distant memory, and typically Dutch architecture and culture are in great supply. While this particularly from of citywide festival can be tough to pull off, Le Guess Who? has developed and diversified every year, offering something for everyone.
A holiday-planner’s dream, it boasts the artistic ambition with none of the associated pretentiousness. Many of the performances take place in the impressive TivoliVredenburg or multitude of other venues within walking distance. Most music starts after 5pm, offering the chance to visit the Rietveld Schröder House, tour the canals, explore Centraal Museum, hang out the Culture Boat or T’Grasje – if you’re that way inclined – take your time with a broad range of coffee shops & eateries – for more, you’re best off reading LGW?’s Utrecht Treasure Guide.
Specially selected films will be screening throughout the event, oh, and by some unholy act of synchronicity, Utrecht also hosts the world’s largest record fair during the weekend. With its grassroots ethos, it’s almost like Le Guess Who? (who are this year working with schools to help children get acquainted with new music & silkscreen printing, for one) is the European benchmark for any singular, forward-thinking music and cultural event irrespective of genre. There’s Le Mini Who? – a spin-off mini-fest featuring primarily Dutch underground bands on the Saturday – and Le Feast, which offers up the living rooms of willing Utrechtian home-chefs to attendees, lending a space to chat with like-minded people, indulge in the finest, and be a part of the massively welcoming community – all on a pay-what-you-want basis.
Where last year was curated by well-oiled leftfield machines like Wilco, Savages, Julia Holter and Suuns, this year brings a (relatively) more underground, experimental element to the bill in having Perfume Genius, Grouper, James Holden, Han Bennink and Jerusalem In My Heart on the booking end of things; some offer films, some, like free jazz percussion master Bennink, will perform with a selection of musicians, ranging from one Thurston Moore to the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra.
Normally, these previews feature a small number of acts to recommend, but the variety at Le Guess Who? is almost too much to navigate at times, so instead, we’ll recommend you put the emphasis on taking advantage of the variety and leaving some things to chance. Sure, you might miss someone you wanted to see due to a clash, but I can verify first hand that one of the elusive, free jazz auteur Patty Waters‘ only shows since the ’60s was a transformative experience last year when the chance was taken – so place great emphasis on catching the right kinds of acts. Each name is on the bill not just for being the top representations in of their genre, but for the clarity of their own vision.
With such openness in booking strategy, we’re able to essentially explore a globe-spanning cohort of music over the weekend across every conceivable part of the Venn diagram. Pop polymath Perfume Genius leads the type of earworming experimentalism we’ll also get from tune-yards and Weyes Blood. Conversely, there’s always a jazz spirit present, which this time is channelled by figureheads like Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra Arkestra, and a special celebration of Alice Coltrane‘s music is performed by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers.
It started out in 2007 with a Canadian lineup, primarily indie, before developing alongside its fanbase to include a wealth of heritage the world over, including Benghazi’s Ahmed Fakroun – widely credited as a pioneer of Arabic World Music, experimental accordion (yes, accordion) player Mario Batkovic. Sombre, sparse piano-led Grouper leads the pack of texture-heavy connotative work, a flag also flown by the likes of Ben Frost, William Basinski and John Maus.
If it’s crushing noise you’re looking for, the festival’s trademark 12-hour drone event is still happening on the final night – with DJs including A Silver Mt. Zion’s Jessica Moss. The Bug vs Dylan Carlson [of Earth] bring their ominous vibes. On the more visceral side, there’s the unmissable lysergic intensity of noise rock’s AC/DC, METZ, and their sonic brethren, Pissed Jeans, as well as opportunities to catch lesser-known esoterica like the bass-heavy black metallers Violent Magic Orchestra. On a different spike of the abrasive spectrum, the bulbous mess of noise conjured by Pharmakon is unmissable if it’s aural confrontation you seek.
Kitchen sink rumination is in ample supply, with Sun Kil Moon featuring, and the announcement that Mount Eerie – who gave us the one of the finest, and the most thematically harrowing albums of the year – plays the 13th century Jacobikerk. We’re getting frisson at the mere idea; thankfully, the organisers have already forewarned festivalgoers.
Grooves are no short supply, as neo-alt. soul genius – yes, genius – Nobody – aka Willis Earl Beal, plays, as well as the tripping sci-fi of Shabazz Palaces. Then again, there’ll always be a spot in our hearts for anything far out, so modern flagbearers like Jerusalem In My Heart, Moon Duo and The Soft Moon will fit the bill just right.
Adding to this, it’s the first year any performances will be taking place in the Domkerk, which boasts the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. It last year marked the death of Leonard Cohen with church bells singing out across Utrecht, in a breathtaking, sobering tribute to his music during the weekend, and this year hosts some acts, most notably a collaboration between the intimate Grouper and her long-term visual collaborator, Paul Clipson.
Finally, in a festival first, there are just a few of the eminent, headliner-worthy slots marked with a ‘?’ – including the final performance of the entire weekend, but alas, we can confirm nothing more – although there’s something to be said for checking your favourites’ forthcoming European tour dates for any blanks.
As we said about last year’s festival, and will no doubt say again: come not just for the music, but for the spirit of the whole thing, and be beguiled.
Le Guess Who? takes place from November 9-12 across Utrecht. Tickets are available here. Listen to our our our festival mixtape below: