Various venues, Utrecht
Spiralling outwards from the cobbled, canal-studded streets of the old town, Utrecht is an architecturally beautiful city in the centre of the Netherlands. Despite its low-key profile relative to the 24/7 energy of Amsterdam, Utrecht is not without its cultural draws, and the jewel in its crown is the sprawling Le Guess Who? festival.
Partially curated by a set of left-of-centre artists each year, this time including The Bug and Jenny Hval, the depth of the festival’s programming was something to behold, with artists and curators visibly happy to be part of an exceptional line-up. The Bug, for example, appeared as King Midas Sound, separately with Flowdan, and finally with Japanese vocalist Hatis Noit across the course of the weekend.
The festival’s impressive hub is the grand, multi-venued TivoliVredenburg Centre, which contains a cluster of theatres, bars and auditoriums nestled into its spectacular, angular building. On Friday, it was host to the swirling, FKA twigs-esque electronic templates of Lafawndah, and an impressive, partly improvised performance from Battles’ Tyondai Braxton and the festival’s ‘drummer in residence’ Greg Fox. On Saturday, art-pop veterans Deerhoof opened proceedings with a run through their seminal album Friend Opportunity, while up on the top floor, Djrum’s live show included a grand piano, cellist and vocalist, melded into in a mesmerising blur of rhythm and ambient melody. Sunday’s highlights included the off-kilter, pop classicism of Cate le Bon, and Holly Herndon’s intense choral electronica (minus her machine-learning ‘band member’ Spawn).
But while the performances in the TivoliVredenburg Centre alone would have made for a high-end programme, there was a lot more to dig into. The exquisite melancholy of Not Waving and Dark Mark (Mark Lanegan) in one of several gothic church venues was an eerie highlight, while Indian artist Lifafa lit up the cosy EKKO space with gentle, euphoric, looping rhythms.
The after-hours scheduling was split between some slightly more out-of-town industrial venues, and a canal-side club. Here, dubstep originator Mala twisted through bass variations on the Friday night, while DJ Marfox and Nidia, representing Portugal’s Príncipe label, had Saturday night sewn up with a chopped and screwed take on house, techno, footwork and more.
It was inspiring to see a city so completely invested in a festival the way Utrecht clearly is. Le Guess Who?, in turn, reciprocates: an entirely free local programme on the final day of the festival showcases homegrown acts in a selection of DIY venues (including the back of a functioning fire station, where returning fire engines briefly and amusingly distracted the crowd’s attention from the bands performing).
With safe, separated cycle lanes across the city – that let you easily reach the further flung venues – packed audiences and little in the way of queues, navigating your way through the Utrecht festival became a journey of ease. Combine this with its broad, seemingly inexhaustible programme, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the eclectic event. It’s easy to see why, this year, it continues to celebrate its 13th year in the game.