In global terms, Utrecht is a tiny city. Its population is barely over 300,000 and you can cross the city centre in less time than it takes to swill a small can of Jupiler. Each November the population surges and begins to resonate with experimental sounds from all over the globe. Forgotten jazz icons and thirty-piece orchestras arrive alongside left-field electronic producers and idiosyncratic guitar bands. For the past 12 years Le Guess Who? has been booking the acts that many festivals fail to consider and in doing so provides a singular platform for sounds that rarely reach these shores.
Le Guess Who? takes place across 20 venues in the city including nightclubs, theatres and some impressive old churches – Utrecht is not short on beautiful old buildings. Each location offers a very specific vibe and artists are programmed accordingly. Colin Stetson’s hypnotic saxophone riffs echoing around the Janskerk was a particularly enchanting moment whilst Belgian band STUFF’s synth-jazz pumped through the small warehouse De Pastoe Fabriek also impressed us a lot. This year also saw the addition of WAS, a newly opened club in the north of the city that Utrechters have long been crying out for. Saturday night saw Dekmantel Soundsystem play until 6am after sets by Utrecht native Luke Cohlen and larger than life Japanese techno producer Soichi Terada.
The majority of highlights though happened at Tivoli Vredenburg, a hugely impressive venue comprising five individual purpose-built spaces of varying sizes. Grote Zaal, the largest of them, has room for 2,000 people on its own. Lonnie Holley’s fluid and melodic storytelling was a joy here, backed by trombone and drums duo Nelson Patton. So was Anoushka Shankar and Manu Delago’s slick and energetic Indian classical music a couple of days later packing out the auditorium with people of all ages. Upstairs Pandora hosted a lot of newer artists most notably Kojey Radical, serpentwithfeet, Tirzah, Gaika and a blistering closer from RP Boo.
Each year Le Guess Who? selects three or four artists to help curate its line-up (this year Moor Mother, Devendra Banhart and Shabaka Hutchings all stepped up) but this is more about a cosign encouraging visitors to check out something new rather than a vanity project for the curators themselves. At the two opposing ends of Banhart’s choices for example, Shintaro Sakamoto’s stripped back alt pop in Ronda and Gigi Masin’s timeless ambient soundscapes upstairs at Cloud Nine both displayed only a loose connection to their curator but saw a solid turnout.
It’s hard to leave the house these days without stumbling across a festival that claims to champion diversity and eclecticism, the refreshing thing about Le Guess Who? is, they’ve been doing exactly that for over a decade and they never labour the point. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else where you could hop from a beautifully restrained Beverly Glenn-Copeland playing nourishing new age jazz to a bare chested Eartheater writhing around on the floor, screaming through a wall of noise. Perhaps the most talked about performance of the weekend was Midori Takada’s masterful set which flitted between delicate spoken word over vibes and theatrical percussion workouts.
That’s not to say that all music is highbrow and cerebral. An easy highlight this year were local rising stars The Mauskovic Dance Band, performing a fast-paced set of extremely tight grooves emulating golden era Latin and Afro-caribbean music with high pitched chanted lyrics and laser zaps. The Heliocentrics set on the Sunday was also masterful, hypnotic and moody particularly impressive as the entire set took place in near darkness drawing focus on a backdrop of spiraling animated visuals.
Few festivals offer such a rich selection of boundary pushing music both old and new and offer it in such an approachable package. Whilst Utrecht in November might not sound like the most exotic getaway, the city is set up well for a multi-venue festival and has spent years refining the formula. Add in the guest curator element and effectively you have a festival with the ability to perpetually update itself in a way that, from the outside at least, seems effortless. This was Crack’s second visit to Le Guess Who? and we’re already looking forward to round three.