Earlier this month, the sonic adventure that is Le Guess Who? turned the quaint and historic city of Utrecht into the most wonderful place to be on earth. Bringing together over 200 artists, spanning genres and generations from across the globe, the organisers proved once more that when it comes to music festivals, Le Guess Who? stands on its own.
With so many bands we already loved lined up to play, as well as new discoveries that turned into favourites, every moment was treasured and our highlights included Joseph Shabason, Miranda Cuckson, LEYA, Efterklang, Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids, Isokratisses, and Xylouris White, amongst many others.
For our third consecutive outing, and perhaps more than ever, Le Guess Who? clearly showed how its selection is guided by an uncompromising boldness and an unmatched musical vision. On top of an already magnificently diverse programme, Patrick Higgins, Fatoumata Diawara, Jenny Hval, The Bug, Moon Duo, and Iris van Herpen & Salvador Breed brought another dimension to the festival as guest curators, inviting their own favourite and like-minded artists.
Things started incredibly well with adventurous violinist Miranda Cuckson gifting us our first show on Thursday evening at Hertz, one of five purpose-built music halls in the giant futuristic complex TivoliVredenburg. She captivated a cheering audience with her effortless and dexterous virtuosity, performing classical works from contemporary artists that she introduced between pieces, including Reiko Füting, Aida Shirazi and Richard Barrett. After performing ’Argot’, which means slang, a piece by Franco Donatoni, Miranda referred to languages morphing constantly because of the way we speak to each other. Funnily enough, we’d been thinking since the start of her set that it was as if her violin spoke many different languages.
Miranda was invited by forward-thinking composer, guitarist, and producer Patrick Higgins, who also brought to the festival a slew of sublime artists we didn’t know before but for whom we fell head over heals instantly. Patrick himself performed with two of his own projects on the opening and closing night of the festival. At the former he unveiled for the very first time his new project with Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar, AEAEA. The two artists melded instrumental performance and digital acrobatics, resampling each other, much like a spontaneous conversation, reaching beautiful moments of both synchronicity and dissonance, back and forth.
Then on Sunday, and also in Tivoli’s monumental concert hall Grote Zaal, Higgins presented the European premiere of Dossier X, an immersive audio-visual collaboration with installation artist Matthew Schreiber and choreographer Monica Mirabile of FlucT. A tantalizing mix of contemporary dance and music, Dossier X saw four performers move on stage under a laser installation, whilst in the corner Higgins provided the musical magic on guitar and electronics.
Amongst the highlights of Patrick Higgins’ curation, in itself the perfect selection to entice festival wanderers into the realms of modern classical music, was Vicky Chow’s performance on Thursday at Hertz. The Canadian born, New York based pianist, who also tickles the keys for Bang On A Can All-Stars, impressed us with pieces from Fjóla Evans, Adam Basanta, and David Brynjar Franzson. With enormous technicality and sensibility, Chow’s fingers floated through the keys, whilst constantly shifting vibrating devices on the strings of her grand piano, creating a poignant and beguiling ambience. On the same bill, yet with a radically different approach, came Lightning Bolt, to cap off our Friday night like a volcanic eruption. At a time “too late for you kids” as they put it, the bass and drums duo might have been closer to tear down Tivoli’s Ronda than any other band before. With drummer Brian Chippendale wearing a fearsome Mexican wrestling mask, they provided a blast of energy, intensity and noise, not least characterized by volume.
Early on the next day, we found ourselves deeply immersed in the sound of LEYA, the experimental violin and harp duo made up of Marilou Donovan and Adam Markiewicz. Their intriguing and celestial songs, made all the more haunting by Adam’s operatic vocals, merged antiquity with modernity, and as they say themselves, they “aim to deconstruct the traditional connotation of the harp and violin by… altering their sound through unorthodox tunings, extended techniques, amplification, and effects”.
We continued navigating the seas of harp bliss with LA-based experimental composer and harpist Mary Lattimore. Performing at EKKO, one of the many venues scattered throughout Utrecht, her solo performance included works from her latest record Hundreds of Days. Confident and radiant on her instrument, which she explores using effects and improvisation, her performance was gentle and ethereal, atmospheric and pulsating.
We’ve loved Efterklang for a long time already so it was a joyous and warm affair to see them perform their recent album Altid Sammen, along with a few older tunes to a rammed Grote Zaal on Thursday. The trio, playing with their 7-piece band, kept the smiling audience involved and immersed, even leading us into a moving sing along to one of their new songs, in Danish. Afterwards, the public was reassured by singer Casper Clausen that they had been singing “nice things”. Their show rounded off beautifully with ‘The Ghost’, an enveloping track from Piramida, their gorgeous 2012 album.
Friday was also off to a triumphant start with Oiseaux-Tempete, who performed one of our favourite sets of LGW? 2017, back then in a much smaller venue. Two years on, they were even more powerful and impressive, performing with guests who collaborated on the new album, including G.W. Sok, Mondkopf and Jean-Michel Pirès, as well as Jessica Moss on violin and Radwan Ghazi Moumneh on electric buzuk and modular system.
The show by legendary cosmic afro jazz mavericks Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids was another highlight. Their intergalactic odyssey started on a high with an ecstatic arrival through the audience to the stage, with Ackmoor blowing a didgeridoo looking instrument. The room quickly turned into a feel-good dancing shindig as they kicked off with ‘We Be All Africans’, and drew from all of their catalogue, including several new songs from their upcoming album Shaman. Accompanied on stage by Dr Margaux Simmons on flute, Sandra Poindexter on violin and vocals, Bobby Cobb on guitar, Gary Brown on bass and George Hearst on drums and percussion, Ackmoor guided and gave his accompanists room to shine and explore on their own, delivering a set filled to the brim with grooves and sparkle.
One of the performances we most eagerly anticipated was that of Joseph Shabason, following the release of two magnificent solo albums, Aytche and Anne (one of our 15 Album Picks of 2018). Joined on stage by Kieran Adams on drums, percussion and samples, the composer and multi-instrumentalist enveloped the entire audience, starting with what felt like a heavenly wonder in nature, backed by recordings of birdsong. In the packed confines of Theatre Kikker, Shabason lit up the stage with his gentle and stunning electronically-tinged jazz and ambient music, with twinkling interplays of sax, percussions, keys and electronics. Supplementing the show with insightful stories, he played tracks from both albums, including his collaboration with Gigi Manson and a track from Golden Lovers, the documentary he scored recently about a queer wrestling love story.
This year saw the unveiling of Hidden Musics, a new ambitious program in collaboration with renowned producer, activist and author Ian Brennan, and musician, record producer and founder of Glitterbeat Records, Chris Eckman. Perfectly tailored for LGW?, Hidden Musics aimed to pay special attention to rarely heard musical traditions and artists from secluded regions of the world. In Jacobikerk, Christopher C King played a serie of 78 rpm recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, as an introduction to Isokratisses, the mesmerizing Greek female vocal ensemble from the Epirus region. In his introduction, King explained they are not a professional band, they sing to help pass the day and cheer up whilst carrying ancient stories from generation to generation.
On Saturday evening we made our way to a packed Janskerk to see Rajasthani folk legend Lakha Khan. Playing the sindhi sarangi, a traditional 27-string instrument from India and accompanied by his son Dane Khan on the dholak, a double headed Indian folk drum, the audience completely fell under his spell. Also part of Hidden Musics, each song was introduced by Ankur Malhotra, co-founder of Amarrass Records. He explained how Khan’s sole purpose in life is to play music and carry forward the centuries-old musical tradition of Rajasthani and Multani folk and Sufi music. Singing in several languages and dialects, including Hindi, Marwari, Sindhi, Punjabi and Multani, Khan’s performance earned him a well deserved standing ovation.
Later that day, in the same gorgeous church, extraordinary vocalist, sitarist and electronic artist Ami Dang filled the air with her enchanting sitar playing and transcending vocals. Blending classical Indian music with electronics, Ami performed songs from her recent album, Parted Plains, and other older ones.
For their first live show in Holland, 10-piece Japanese combo Minyo Crusaders brought a party to the Grote Zaal with their blend of traditional Japanese folk songs (minyō) with Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms. “You like to dance to cumbia?” they asked, before infusing the space with their joyous and infectious grooves, showing the ease with which music can overcome grammatical shortcomings.
What followed was an unexpected gem of a gig. High up in Tivoli’s Cloud 9, Xylouris White proved to be a pairing from heaven, and one we hadn’t yet given the attention we should have. Cretan lute player George Xylouris and Australian drummer Jim White, exhibited huge technical mastery with immense sensibility. The two performed an exhilarating set side by side on stage, with new songs on offer from The Sisypheans, the album they’d just released the day before.
The most compelling, powerful and heartfelt show for us came from Oslo-based improv-band DNA? AND?, self-described as a “collective with alternating members and an abundance of chromosomes”. Five young people with Down Syndrome and four professional musicians created music unconstrained by conventional technique, moving freely on stage, singing, playing and shuffling instruments.
Melbourne band Tropical Fuck Storm were the perfect choice to cap off the festival, with a mighty and blistering show, blending everything from post punk and rock to psychedelia and pop. With beautiful and addictive vocals delivered by guitarist Gareth Liddiard, guitarist/keys Erica Dunn and bassist Fiona Kitschin, the quartet also displayed their raw and intense energy, owing to the pounding drumming of Lauren Hammel.
Le Guess Who? has a tremendous sense of endless adventure and as it came to an end, we simply wished it would carry on all year long. With countless artists performing across several venues simultaneously, there were so many performances that we wish we could’ve seen but all of the enriching and memorable performances we caught will reverberate forever.
So Le Guess Who? 2020 is already in our calendars, and we’re looking forward to it. The 14th edition will take place between 12th and 15th November 2020 and early-bird 4-Day Festival Passes are available until Saturday November 30th through leguesswho.com, so get on it!