Various venues, Utrecht
9 - 12 November
Le Guess Who? is a big deal in Utrecht. In the lead up to its eleventh year, the purple question marks which are a cornerstone of the event’s branding are seen in shop windows, on the sides of the city’s many historic buildings and adorning posters on every street corner.
The four-day, city-wide festival is a local institution. So we’re told, people come from across the planet each year for it, too. The huge line-up pulls from the leftfield of jazz, rock and electronic, and invites guest curators to pick their favourite artists from around the world to play. This year’s curators include James Holden, Jerusalem In My Heart, Perfume Genius and Shabazz Palaces, which in itself speaks volumes for the diversity of the event as a whole.
Most of the headline slots take place inside the hugely impressive Tivoli Vredenburg venue in the centre of town. One of the first standout performances here is Keiji Haino, who is something of a Le Guess Who? mainstay. It’s a solid repeat-booking, seeing as Haino previously outlined his ambition to “never repeat himself” in his music. The Japanese musician is frantic and hunched over an electric guitar as Han Bennink provides a rolling backdrop of shuffling jazz drums. Around the same time in the Main Hall, Mark Kozelek delivers evocative narratives from his latest Sun Kil Moon record, accompanied on three tracks by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley.
Presumably the reasoning behind the festivals somewhat awkward name, Le Guess Who? is peppered with surprise acts across the weekend. This year Gruff Rhys, The Residents and Princess Nokia are among them. Each one draws a huge crowd. On Saturday evening, another trio, Pharoah Sanders, James Holden and John Maus, present a difficult triple-clash. We weren’t the only ones who attempted to catch a slice of each performance. Sanders had the 2000-seat Main Hall bustling. Despite his age and obvious frailty away from the saxophone, the 77 year old’s playing was incredibly deft and captivating to watch.
Seeing as James Holden cited Sanders as a key influence on his new sound, dashing from here to Holden’s performance made sense in a way. James Holden’s entire new direction could be described as psychedelic trance, were there not already a genre using the name that sounds, thankfully, nothing like what Holden and The Animal Spirits have to offer. Moroccan gnawa musician Maalem Houssam Guinia was also a huge highlight on the Saturday, his effortlessly charismatic performance was backed by four energetic qraqeb and backing vocal players.
At first, the thought of people travelling from far and wide to visit this relatively small Dutch festival was puzzling. But by the end of four days ambling around Utrecht, flitting from one uniquely enriching experience to another, a transcontinental mission seemed entirely logical. Few festivals, if any, succeed in gathering such a wide spectrum of future-facing artists whilst delivering one cohesive message; breaking boundaries, no matter the context, is important but also hugely entertaining.