Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht; Temple Of The Dog in Seattle.
Questing Dutch festival celebrates its first decade. By Ian Harrison.
Le Guess Who? Utrecht, Netherlands
During his Saturday opening slot at Le Guess Who?, jazz folk improviser Ryley Walker has to contend with an out-of-tune guitar. He rectifies matters with insouciance – wondering if anyone really is selling strong LSD up on the balcony? – and before a fierce and free version of his DIY-mind expansion opus Primrose Green, assures us: “My shit is tuned.” Celebrating 10 years since it began in the Dutch city of Utrecht, Le Guess Who? is all about the fine calibration. A questing, international four-days-and 200-plus sets for the receptive musical gourmand, it’s centred around gleaming five-hall music complex the Tivoli Vredenburg and 12 other venues across town, and this year Wilco, Savages, Julia Holter and Suuns each curate a night’s programme. Wilco’s day one trolley dash of entertainments include bone rattling US primitivism from 75 Dollar Bill, the wildly entertaining Malian blues rock of Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba, and the devotional, Arthur Russell-like voice poems of Alabama’s Lonnie Holley. The latter represents a principle recurring over the next four days – you don’t always know what you want, but when it’s there you recognise it. And while Wilco’s show in the Grote Zaal is tinged by the still-fresh Trump victory, their two-hour career-wide set is unbowed. Moving from country into indie-dance, noise rock and beyond, lift-off for the weekend is achieved. Friday begins with the valedictory sound of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Dance Me To The End Of Love played by local carillon player Malgosia Fiebig on the bells of Utrecht’s Dom Tower. There’s further instrument unorthodoxy when Bosnian-Swiss accordionist Mario Batkovic fills the ancient Jenskerk with cold pulses, satanic orchestras and surging pop dramas, earning stand-up applause. Across town, Estonian violinist Maarja Nuut and electronics man Hendrik Kaljujärv blend folk, loops and primeval forest chill to enticingly mysterious effect.
Back at the main hall, Savages’ mercilessly drilled, all-consuming stadia-post-punk-in-waiting refocuses the mind, with posturing singer Jehnny Beth declaring, “Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” while remaining civil enough to take her boots off before plunging into the crowd. There’s no such courtesy from Wrangler, who set the late night controls for Sheffield synth city 1979, all the while swigging from cans.
As is customary, Saturday afternoon becomes Le Mini Who?, a 60-band beano taking place in the city’s record shops, bars and cafes. There are enticing MBV/ Cocteaus wooze-frequencies from the splendidly-named Deutsche Ashram and wondrous my-first-Iggy garage spume from Charlie & The Lesbians, whose barechested front-fiend writhes and grovels amongst the café audience during a spirited run-through of The Runaways’ Cherry Bomb. Tonight’s curator, Julia Holter, plays songs from all four LPs with a four-piece group. In an absorbing 40 minutes, The Falling Age’s impressionistic 14-minutes is a spellbinding highlight. Sax-augmented new song Hejinian, which talks of inner ears, whiskey and entropic states, has a ’70s Sparks feel and bodes well for her new record. For sheer spectacle, though, Brazilian matriarch Elza Soares wins the night, provoking the masses with her Raindogs-in-Rio samba-fusion of avant rock, jazz and electronics, delivered from a throne in a dress perhaps made out of metalloid human viscera. The hyperrhythmic Ethio-punk collaboration by Dutch institution The Ex and Addis Ababa’s Fendika, the yogic zithers of Laraaji, and The Comet Is Coming’s jazz-psych raving complete another outstanding day. After audio gorging like this, it’s hard not to feel lachrymose on Sunday, though the Gregorian chant from local gents Karolus Magnus, Josephine Foster’s time travelling attic warblings and the gleaming indie pop of Amber Arcades all bring succour, while the most potent proof of the festival’s ability to surprise comes with Patty Waters’ performance on Sunday evening. A cult-acclaimed jazz voice who cut two albums for ESP-Disk in the mid-’60s, she’s backed by a free-minded trio featuring original pianist and fellow ESP-Disker Burton Greene. While her voice is a drier instrument than the harrowed scream that made her 1965 recording of Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair a triumph of otherworldly purgation, her ability to give familiarities like Nature Boy and Wild Is The Wind readings of tragic elemental power is astonishing. Yet still there’s more: a swinging and joyous set from Tortoise, high-tensile electronic rock from Suuns and the effusive north Indian drum and brass raving of the Junun project by The Rajasthan Express, Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood. Dazed, happy, we leave reminded beyond doubt that there are music festivals, and then there is Le Guess Who?
“BRAZILIAN MATRIARCH ELZA SOARES WINS THE NIGHT WITH HER RAINDOGSIN-RIO SAMBA FUSION.”
You know who: (right) Jehnny Beth, boots still on, fronts drilled Savages; (centre row, from left) spellbinding Julia Holter; enticingly mysterious Maarja Nuut; Ryley Walker, his shit is tuned; (bottom row, from left) Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, unbowed; wild Bassekou Kouyaté; otherworldly Patty Waters; the sheer spectacle of Elza Soares.