We run down some of our favourite moments from Le Guess Who? 2018, including Circuit des Yeux, Anoushka Shankar & Manu Delago with MO Strings, Yonatan Gat & The Eastern Medicine Singers, STUFF. and The Comet Is Coming, among many other standout performers
“With over 7 billion people on the planet, the music we hear is only a fraction of what’s out there. This is the instinct that keeps us digging.”
This line on the first page of this year’s festival booklet sums up perfectly the vision, ambition, and spirit of this one of a kind festival.
We loved Le Guess Who? to bits last year and you have probably guessed by now that it is one of our highlights of the year. So earlier this month we returned for a second time to Utrecht for the 12th edition of Le Guess Who?. During four extravagant days, this quaint and picturesque Dutch town became a marvellous melting pot of music and artistic experimentation, bringing together a smorgasbord of incredibly diverse and cutting-edge artists of all different backgrounds from across the globe, both new and older, known and lesser known. Le Guess Who? is not about sticking to the known and it draws a befitting audience, eager to discover what lies outside the mainstream.
With performances held around 20 different spaces scattered throughout Utrecht, one of the beauties of the festival is hopping from venue to venue. Cruising on rented bicycles through the city’s charming cobbled streets before arriving at a church, a cafe or a theatre to watch a show is an integral part of the experience.
Every year, Le Guess Who?’s extraordinary program takes on new dimensions, owing to a selection of unique curators, who in turn, invite some of their very own favourite artists to play. Shabaka Hutchings, Devendra Banhart and Moor Mother took the curator seat this year, expanding and enriching a program rife with wonderful surprises. With around 200 artists and with some of them not often performing, if ever, in Europe, tough choices had to be made at times because of overlapping schedules or venues reaching capacity. We simply wished omnipresence was a thing. But missing one performance usually meant finding an undiscovered gem in a nearby venue. Almost without fail, in whichever venue/performance we found ourselves, aural pleasures were to be had.
Prodigious multi-reed player Shabaka Hutchings performed last year with his band The Ancestors and also in previous editions of Le Guess Who?. This year his participation reached new heights with his role as curator. Many of our highlights were part of his curation, including London based ingenious drummer, producer and composer Tom Skinner aka Hello Skinny, who performed Friday at De Pastoe Fabriek. Skinner told the audience right from the start that it was a dance gig and he wasn’t lying. What ensued was a brilliant show playing new and old material. Hutchings, who performed with Hello Skinny in an older line-up, joined the band for a wild interpretation of ‘Bump’.
What followed at the crowded De Pastoe Fabriek was a raucous and groovy set by a new favourite band, Belgian instrumental five-piece STUFF. who were also part of Hutchings’ curation. Cooking a musical broth of jazz, funk, hip-hop, electronica, and anything they want to throw in with a good dose of improvisation displaying their versatile musicianship, they turned the warehouse into an irresistible and scorching dance party.
Plugging their recent album, Mirror, Orchestra Of Spheres were as amazing and outlandish as they usually are, in costumes resonating their inventiveness and playing original instruments like the biscuit tin guitar or the foot pedal analogue bass. The Wellington quartet delivered a pulverising set at the cavernous club Kytopia on Saturday evening, navigating not only through recent material, but also older hits. The band’s Baba Rossa told the adoring crowd that they had played both their oldest and their newest song. A wild intergalactic treat.
Other highlights on Hutchings’ curation included South Africa’s explosive psychedelic afrofunk seven-piece BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) and the wonderfully captivating and hypnotic performance of sax wizard Kadri Gopalnath who spent most of the last twenty years adapting his instrument to the traditions of Indian Carnatic music. Performing at Tivoli’s Grote Zaal on Sunday, Gopalnath, accompanied by two tabla players, a violinist, and someone in charge of counting the music’s rhythms with various series of hand movements, sat crossed legged on a carpet, enchanting and drawing in the audience. We were also completely blown away by London-based Japanese post-punk four-piece Bo Ningen. Playing late on Friday evening at a packed Tivoli’s Ronda, their show was a whirlwind of relentless energy, explosive rock and hardcore punk at its finest. Dressed in a feminine fashion, moving frantically yet elegantly, they spread the same explosive energy on the ecstatic crowd.
As a performer, Hutchings played with two of his bands, The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet, the latter in a special XL format with the usual two drummers doubling up to four. Sons of Kemet performed in Ronda, one of the five music halls in Tivoli Vredenburg. A giant complex with five purpose-built music halls, Tivoli is central to Le Guess Who?, hosting myriad performances. We must admit to only briefly catching Sons of Kemet as Ronda was bursting at the seams, with a mammoth crowd gathered to watch and experience one of the fest’s most anticipated acts. We bid our time and the next day, astro-futurist trio The Comet Is Coming took to the stage at the Grote Zaal with an infectious energy, ripe for dancing. King Shabaka, Betamax and Danalogue led the audience on a cosmic voyage, utterly perfect for a celestial and effusive closing on the last day.
Back to the general line-up and other curated bills, there was a multitude of musical riches on offer. Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley’s collaborative duo DRINKS gifted us with our inaugural set of the festival on Thursday evening at Tivoli’s Pandora, offering with their band a playful set, drawing mostly from their recent second album Hippo Lite, including the weird and wonderful tracks ‘Corner Shops’ and ‘Real Outside’.
Celebrated improvisational artist Lonnie Holley was one of the most captivating performers of the festival, stealing the show with his honest and engaging storytelling and ghostly piano playing. Accompanied by the incredible experimental duo of trombone and drums Nelson Patton, Lonnie Holley’s spontaneous musical narrations of life stories evoked a wonderful feeling of life celebration in harmony with Mother Earth.
As is usual, Le Guess Who? spreads its wings in many ways offering more than musical performances throughout its four days like films, artist talks, exhibitions or Le Mini Who?. A tour of Utrecht led by Lonnie, “Through The Eyes of Lonnie Holley”, was one of the one-off events that happened this year.
We’ve been awed before by the ferocious live energy of wildly inventive guitar virtuoso Yonatan Gat. In a trio format, with drummer and bassist, his performance at Le Guess Who? was even more memorable, punctuated by his sparkling collaboration with Native American powwow drum group The Eastern Medicine Singers. Performing at Pandora, the show consisted of two parts. The first part kicked off with a mindblowing drum solo, before Gat joined his two band members for a relentless and powerful show with influences from all over the place. Gat had warned their set would have to be short, as they were merely the support act for the big ceremony. The second part of the show then followed, with the members of The Eastern Medicine Singers all performing on a single giant drum, in the middle of the audience. As the lights turned on them, chanting and pounding, Gat and his bandmates joined the middle stage, enthralling the audience with a powerful and transcending experience.
The serene and minimal compositions of Japanese pianist Takuro Kikuchi, in the gorgeous and monumental setting of Janskerk, were a marvellous and meditative experience. The church’s high ceilings and its vast emptiness became filled with stunning light designs and with the tranquillity and beauty of Kikuchi’s instrumental pieces.
Saturday started with our favourite set of the day, Anoushka Shankar & Manu Delago with MO Strings performing to a packed Grote Zaal. Many of the artists gracing stages at Le Guess Who? push their instruments to their limits. With a staggering technical ability and abounding creativity, Manu Delago does exactly that with the hang, experimenting and expanding the possibilities of the instrument. Delago led the first 30 minutes, performing his mesmerizing compositions with the 27-member string section of the Metropole Orkest, under the direction of conductor Jules Buckley. Whether playing the hang or the drums, whether playing with bare hands or using brushes or sticks, Delago manipulated the hang in various ways, always adventurously, drawing us in entirely. Anoushka Shankar, with whom Delago had previously collaborated, joined him on stage for the second half of the performance, enchanting the audience with her mastery of sitar, blending classical Indian music with contemporary sounds. The pairing of two exceptional virtuosos on two very different and unique instruments made for a set that was nothing short of cinematic and divine.
Le Guess Who? was brimming with surprising collaborations, and a very striking one graced the last day, with Circuit des Yeux. In yet another unique Le Guess Who? moment on Sunday afternoon, Haley Fohr, the extraordinarily talented and adventurous vocalist, composer, and producer behind the project, presented an augmented version of her album Reaching For Indigo, aptly called Gaia Infinitus, as well as the first live rendition of previously unreleased music from the album’s sessions. Fohr rearranged and performed the album with members of the Dutch Chamber Orchestra, and with her bassist and drummer. This accompaniment only added to the immense and intense beauty of Reaching For Indigo, one of our Album Picks of 2017. Powerful, beautiful and moving.
The thrillingly diverse and friendly environment of le Guess Who? emanates from every corner of Utrecht, radiating in every direction and allowing art to take over and come to life. After having been to many European festivals over the years, we can say that there is nothing quite like Le Guess Who?. The 2018 edition, a treasure trove for musical explorers of all kinds, shows that by following their instinct to keep on digging, the festival’s organisers have struck gold yet again.
Even though there’s almost a year to wait before the next Le Guess Who?, we’re already looking forward to it. The 13th edition will take place between 7th and 10th November 2019 and as usual there’s early-bird 4-Day Festival Passes available but only until Friday 30th November, so don’t delay!