Never too much – experiencing Le Guess Who?

The expertly curated Le Guess Who? provides Matti Nives with a labyrinth of venues and sound with the festival playing out like a perfectly constructed DJ set.

The expertly curated Le Guess Who? provides Matti Nives with a labyrinth of venues and sound with the festival playing out like a perfectly constructed DJ set.

Le Guess Who

Karstein Volle

Utrecht is shiny. The first things I notice are the commercial-looking downtown buildings which seem to reflect a strange kind of megalomaniac utopia. I have been here before, though only for a couple of hours, passing through. The reason for this present trip is very specific – visiting Le Guess Who?, an unrealistically intriguing music festival. And probably the MEGA Record & CD Fair as well. That is, potentially seeing around 120 carefully selected performances and visiting the world’s largest record fair. Not bad for one weekend.

The Hotel Ship

I decided to stay in the hotel ship, which sounded nice and cosy, plus, it’s probably very central, right? Well, not quite. I discovered that the canal parking space for M/S Olympia (brought in from Basel, Switzerland), was exactly 3.2KM from the Utrecht city centre. Not a problem. I was travelling light and enjoyed the walk. The weather agrees with this.

Arriving on board, I was greeted by two friendly staff members, one of which was the ships manager herself. Everything seemed smooth and I received the “sir” treatment. The first bump in the road was my casual question “do I need a password for the guest internet?”, which was greeted with a surprised look, not unlike that which might be given to somebody suggesting that they need to park their intergalactic space shuttle somewhere outside. No, there was no guest internet on board.

OK, fair enough. Perhaps I could use a little offline time. Sure, emails will pile up, but what the hell. “Can you get me directions to the festival venue? I had the plan to look it up online but, you know…” A strange moment of hesitation follows. “Umm, sure, sir. Can you give us some more information. Like, what’s the name of the festival?”

Puzzled by the turn of events at the official festival ship, I reply. “Le Guess Who?”

“Well, Eurosonic? No, wait…”

“What do you mean by ‘Eurosonic’?”

“Taking a guess, sir. As you suggested.”

“No. Le Guess Who? That’s the festival. Can you just google it, please?”

“Guess. What. No, it still doesn’t show up on the screen, I’m sorry.”

After a brief but very confusing dialogue, I manage to get the directions, and a very helpful effort in customer service. I make my way towards the fest site.

TivoliVredenburg

WTF? That is my first reaction upon entering TivoliVredenburg, the main venue for Le Guess Who? Or rather, FTW. It’s literally like being inside a spaceship, with concert halls, clubs, foyers and restaurants galore. Or rather, a giant shopping mall with a whole lot of exceptionally great music. There are escalators rising up high into the sky. It is never-ending, and I love it all. Later when back in Helsinki, I describe the venue as one building with Kulttuuritalo, Kuudes linja, G Livelab and Tavastia plus some other venues thrown all into one – and a nice restaurant as a bonus. Helsinki people you get the picture.

…a giant shopping mall with a whole lot of exceptionally great music. There are escalators rising up high into the sky. It is never-ending, and I love it all.

The Tivoli seemingly stretches out into the stratosphere with each venue being another 2-3 flights of stairs up from the previous one. The Grote Zaal on the ground floor is a big concert hall, Pandora up the stairs is a club space for about 200 people. Cloud Nine even higher up has a similar capacity but feels completely different, and then there’s Hertz, a more classical/jazz styled concert hall, somewhere above the clouds. And much, much more.

There’s sound everywhere. In every foyer there’s a good DJ playing. Jazz. Rare African gems. Rare groove. New indie. Old indie. Weird no wave. You name it. It’s all happening to a dizzying effect.

Sipping some Leffe Blonde, I’m actually secretly watching a Finnish Liiga ice hockey game on my smart phone. It’s my own private secret. My team is performing poorly.

My first night begins at the restaurant. Sitting alone, I order a dish which has a lot of duck and too much sausage. That’s Holland for you. An excess of everything. Sipping some Leffe Blonde, I’m actually secretly watching a Finnish Liiga ice hockey game on my smart phone. It’s my own private secret. My team is performing poorly.

The choice

Starting off, William Tyler and 75 Dollar Bill offer a good taster of what’s ahead. Both acts demand a concentrated audience, and here they have one. The instrumental guitar essays of Tyler are greeted with enthusiasm at the slowly filling Grote Zaal, and several set of escalators up, 75 Dollar Bill offer a masterclass in grooving with minimal elements.

The image of the LGW? audience profile begins to take shape. These are serious music heads, but not the nerdy kind. People are hear to listen, to enjoy and to share their love for the normally below the radar music. They go out to see the newcomers and the obscurities with the same kind of welcoming enthusiasm with which they greet the most well-known names in the lineup. There’s something refreshingly effortless in the ambience. Could this finally be the modern festival dream of “no headliners”? For real, and not on the press text only.

The curators

So it all works like this. There’s four curators (Wilco, Julia Holter, Suuns, Savages) and the general program, as selected by the LGW? people themselves. The curators appear one per day, and their selections are spread across the four festival dates. The sort-of fifth curator is the Dutch post-punk act The Ex, who have their own festival within the festival, including a performance by an Ethiopian circus troupe, plus more.

They go out to see the newcomers and the obscurities with the same kind of welcoming enthusiasm with which they greet the most well-known names in the lineup. There’s something refreshingly effortless in the ambience

Wilco are the curators performing on the first night. Their set length, 2 h 20 min, promises an epic set. Wilco are angry. Trump just happened. They belt out a set leaning towards the more rocking, more distorted side of their remarkable back catalogue. I murder my hopes of seeing Deerhoof play the other room and stay on for the duration. The set is pretty trademark, but rather excellent at that. I love Wilco being Wilco. The monstrous avantgarde thunderstorm of Nels Cline & co juxtaposed with Jeff Tweedy’s alt country on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”  describes the current American political ethos to a tee.

 

I notice that Wilco doesn’t really make an effort to engage with their LGW? selections. Wouldn’t they like to point out something exceptional not to be missed? Later I find out that this trend continues over the weekend. The curators don’t address their curation all that much while on stage.

The nocturnal

Let’s face it: set times such as 1am are pretty late for me these days, especially while paying the tax of travel. Halfway through the set of Kyoka, I set out on my trek back to the Hotel Ship. Thankfully, taxis are plentiful outside TivoliVredenburg. “To the Spinoza Bridge, please. Then over and to the right.” Off we go.

Arriving at M/S Olympia, I discover nobody there. There is no way of entering, since the key is only for my room door and the button which in broad daylight opens the door into the ship does nothing come dusk. I wait. I wait some more. Nobody.

First thought: Back to TivoliVredenburg, ride it out on one of the foyers and stumble into a café (the regular kind) as soon as they open. Second, more advanced thought: knock on one of the residents’ window to have them open the door from the inside.

I discover a lot of empty rooms in the ship with no lights on and nobody inside. Finally, I see a room with the curtains pulled and the light on. I knock. No answer. Then, another one, with some movement it seems. I knock.

A man appears near the window. He looks up and down. He looks left, then right. I knock more. He looks South, North, East and West. I knock more, louder this time. Finally he notices me, looking perplexed and sans “outside pants”. I try to signal him to open the door, pointing towards the door with a thrusting movement, then simulating a key turning in the keyhole. No result. I suddenly realise this may seems oddly homoerotic, so I decide to change my game plan.

Grabbing my phone, I decide to write the message on the screen. I struggle to find a notepad app, so I just open the most recent text message (from my Finnish colleague Katariina) and write on the discussion “can u open door pls?”

The situation is odd and I’m face-to-face with my Finnishness – the shame about bothering strangers with my minuscule worries.

I notice a growing distrust and bewilderment on the man’s face before realising he must be reading the conversation in Finnish appearing on the screen above my most acute message about the door. Soon, he reaches that part and we are on. I go to the door and greet my Italian saint. The situation is odd and I’m face-to-face with my Finnishness – the shame about bothering strangers with my minuscule worries. “Are you enjoying the festival? Did you see Wilco?”, he asks to lighten up the mood as we walk in the hallway. “Yeah, great event, nice gig. Good night and thanks again.” “Good night!”

The record fair

The Utrecht Record & CD Fair is indeed MEGA, as it says on the title. It’s great that it’s actually only a walking distance from the ship, so I make my way there after a full breakfast with just the right amount of coffee refills. The venue hosting the event is called Jaarbeurs which, true to the Holland ethos, is larger than life.

Seeing some visuals of the event before attending, I was amazed at the sheer size of the hall full of records. Turns out, there’s something like 12 of those halls, each hosting a “MEGA something” fair this weekend. The way I find out about this is trying to find my way through a general collectors’ fair to make it to the records. I have never seen so many vintage coins, dolls, appliances and other miscellaneous items in my life. Some people dressed as Stormtroopers hang around near a booth offering signatures of the actors of something related to Star Wars (or Star Wars memorabilia?).

 

Finally making my way to the Record Con., I soon discover eight recurring types of booths: 1) the “buy 20 records for 10 €” booths (typical records: cheapish classic album reissues) 2) the “prog“ booth (rare near mint pressings of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King) 3) the “a little bit of everything but nothing too interesting” booth (an overpriced copy of a Sonic Youth reissue) 4) the “little bit of everything and a whole lot of interesting stuff” booth (good jazz originals, good indie rock originals, good classic album originals) 5) the “specialist” booth (“Records from Brazil”) 6) the “novelty” booth (Venezuelan pressings of The Beatles releases, Trump speech picture discs) 7) the “overpriced jazz specialist” booth (jazz originals from 50 € up to 500 €) 8) the “reasonably priced jazz specialist” booth (jazz originals from 15 € to 2500 €).

Trying to figure out a plan, I decide to focus on booth types 4) & 8) but end up spending too much time on the type 7) booth, sellers luring me in like it’s Saturday night at Piritori or Christiania.

“Well, let’s put it this way. You seem like a serious collector who loves jazz. For you, 100 euro. If it would be a reseller or some completist catalogue collector, I would say 150. But for you,100. Oh, what the hell, let’s say 95. There might be a cheaper copy one day on eBay but here you don’t have to pay postage. Look, it’s near mint. Spotless. Sure, a cat bit off a corner of the cover and then dragged the album through the mud, but that’s just a great story, right? It’s added value. Oh by the way, did you notice that I have Volume 2 of that also? And there’s a hundred more records on that label here. Just take your time, mate.”

Sure, a cat bit off a corner of the cover and then dragged the album through the mud, but that’s just a great story, right? It’s added value.

I succumb to temptation.

Several ATM trips (the queue is long, by the way), some rare Sun Ra, BYG Actuel and Impulse! records, and what must have been like 6 hours later, I zombie myself out of the record heaven/hell. Happy? Yeah, I guess so. Kind of. “You see, a good rare record is also like an investment, such as a painting…”

The new standard

Back at Le Guess Who?, I am constantly amazed at the general level of the lineup and the vision in curating it. The likes of Jessy Lanza, Tim Hecker, Wooden Shjips, Dinosaur Jr., Quilt, Anna Von Hausswolff and so on are just the usual business. Every show is packed and every band seems to have their own dedicated following.

There are several venues outside of TivoliVredenburg and one particularly atmospheric location is called Janskerk. It’s a church in in the centre of the city, holding about 600 seats. Circuit Des Yeux gives a stunning early evening performance for a full house. Her music is beautifully ethereal on record, morphing into a very personal sounding live version with just the VOICE (caps needed) and acoustic guitar. Everybody’s seemingly holding their breath throughout the blissful performance.

Back at the Tivoli, Cate Le Bon shows what it means to lead a murderously grooving rock band in this day and age. Riley Walker combines college-jock-esque stage persona with some of the best folk rock music circa now, and Good Sad Happy Bad flood over us with a flurry of guitars, some off-kilter synth sounds, mumbled vocals, plus a whole lot of undeniably crunchy drumming. All is well.

The eternal

One of the most striking facets of Le Guess Who? is finding just the right kind of legendary performers to present. I feel that this always carries a risk, for some ageing performers carry with them the aura of nostalgia, which does not always fare well next to all the new stuff.

One of the most striking facets of Le Guess Who? is finding just the right kind of legendary performers to present. I feel that this always carries a risk, for some ageing performers carry with them the aura of nostalgia

Laraaji is a success, tuning his zithers well into the wee hours, making the stage hand keeping time nervous, before delivering a stellar set of ambient sounds, complete with passages of laughter meditation. However, Scott Fagan’s presentation of the classic album Atlantic Blues feels oddly out of step, as does the performance of Patty Waters, taking the stage with a jazz trio but providing vocals on only every other song or so.

And then there’s Elza Soares. The Brazilian diva sits atop a flight of stairs wearing some sort of unreal dress which seems to consume the entire stage. She sings mostly new songs from her latest album Woman at the End of the World, with a band member translating her stage comments. The new Soares sound, “samba sujo (dirty samba)”, is captivating and unique, and the singer declares that “this is only the beginning”.

 

One of the most anticipated performances for myself was that of the San Francisco Tape Music Center pioneer Pauline Oliveros. She performs at Hertz, the intimate concert hall, a perfect setting for the concert on paper. In reality, there are noisy door sounds, clinks and clonks, coughing, a beer bottle falling down, plus other audio debris sprinkled across the very quiet Oliveros set. She improvises using both the natural sounds of the accordion and some double bass like sounds. The effect is hypnotising. At first, I feel irritated by the extra sounds, but then I realise that I’m actually right at the heart of the “deep listening”, “an aesthetic designed to inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations” (as it reads on wikipedia).

The noises BECOME music. And the music becomes its surroundings. I’m in some sort of half-conscious state, sinking deeper into the soft theatre seat.

Less than two weeks after the festival, the news is out that Pauline Oliveros has passed away at 84.

The finale

The final performance at the 2016 edition of Le Guess Who? takes place at the Grote Zaal and presents Junun, the collaborative work of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and producer Nigel Godrich with the Indian composer Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express.

The band members enter through the audience, playing the anthemic brass melody of their title track Junun . From that moment on, it’s a party. The band celebrates music, life, pure existence really. Everybody joins in, clapping hands and dancing. The atmosphere of the concert hall transforms within the space of mere minutes.

 

The Junun performance reveals another element of beauty about Le Guess Who?, namely that of the overall dynamics of the event. Knowing how hard it is to piece together the puzzle of what-where-when regarding programming, it’s amazing how fitting my personal narrative of listening during the four days have been. As perfect as William Tyler’s introspective guitar stylings were to kick things off, it is equally fitting to listen to Junun as the very last item on the menu. What happens in between, of course, is purely subjective selection, given the broad scope of the festival.

What happens in between, of course, is purely subjective selection, given the broad scope of the festival.

Yet somehow, on a very personal level, it was all like a perfectly built DJ set, fittingly echoing each relevant shade and depth of the contemporary listening experience in forward-reaching music.

Le Guess Who? 2016

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