If there was one festival with enough mind-expanding music to snap us out of the habit of viewing all festivals in 2021 against a post-Covid backdrop, Le Guess Who? might have been that one.
The festival, for its 14th edition, continued its novel programming idiosyncrasy of handing curatorial responsibilities to its headliners. For 2021, John Dwyer, Lucrecia Dalt, Matana Roberts, Midori Takada, and Phil Elverum lovingly welcomed like-minded but unlike-sounding artists to music spaces and venues across Utrecht. The musical range alone was enough to make you forget about 18 months of low-budget livestreams and “original tickets remain valid” emails.
On arriving in Utrecht, the sense of cultural curiosity was palpable. It’s a small city so the characters and atmosphere of Le Guess Who? sort of take over for the weekend. It was an atmosphere which momentarily looked in jeopardy on the start of day two when the Netherlands government announced a “partial lockdown” – bringing the curfew for live music from midnight to 7pm. Fortunately, we were dealing with an experienced and dedicated production team whose motto for the year was “Celebrate Change.” The rules changed so they did too – on with the show.
Providing a fitting soundtrack to an atmosphere of uncertainty, both Manchester duo Space Afrika and San Antonio producer Claire Rousay used field recordings, overheard vocal samples and foggy, ambient textures. Space Afrika’s show was backed by a looping collection of iPhone footage and dashboard videos, literally transporting us into their oblique, inner-city dubscapes. We found Rousay sitting down behind a table performing at a former psychiatric institute on the other side of town. For an artist who skillfully cuts through experimental music’s self-seriousness with contemporary references and a kind of self-referential, lowercase emotional openness, it felt like a funny and effective placement.
From lo-fi “emo ambient” to soul-stirring free jazz. Irreversible Entanglements, the band formed by saxophonist Keir Neuringer, poet Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) and bassist Luke Stewart played on the eve of releasing their third full-length album Open The Gates. The band operated with an intuitive understanding of where each other were heading, playing breathlessly for 60 minutes with no breaks or verbal communication. All the while, Ayewa’s lyrical vignettes anchored the velocity of the free jazz workouts – commanding and collected in the eye of the storm.
An equally stirring performance came from Brooklyn sound artist L’Rain whose voice seamlessly meshed with her band’s shapeshifting instrumentation. With stunning live vocal ability and a mic stand adorned with flowers, there was a sense of occasion to L’Rain’s set which made it all the more enthralling.
This feeling of theatre and ambition was one of the weekend’s through-lines. Former Crack Magazine cover star KeiyaA looked incredible and was animated throughout her set. The addition of a live band and new arrangements gave her hushed, sample-heavy R&B a new tightness which allowed her flawless vocal performance to really shine. On the same stage, PinkSiifu’s six-piece live band NEGRO ‘6 transform the rapper into a kind of space-age bandleader – creating the weekend’s most energetic moshpit at a show that felt somewhere between Sun Ra and Death Grips. Two floors up from Siifu in the Cloud Nine venue, Lyra Pramuk brought the otherworldly sounds of Fountain to life with a vocal elasticity rivalled only by her physical presence as she nimbly lept and darted across the stage in full harmony with her compositions.
One stipulation in the government’s mid-festival announcement was that theatres and cinemas (i.e. seated spaces) could stay open later. Quickly capitalising on this condition, Sons of Kemet’s closing set was staged in the main auditorium. When Theon Cross’ chest-shaking tuba kicked into underpin the band, the place erupted. People stood up dancing, embracing the circumstances and embracing the new, unrepeatable sounds which were right in front of them. It felt like an apt finale.