“Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” Savages’ Jehnny Beth said, her voice and eyes burning with rage as she taunted a knot of fans to repeat the mantra. And there was a lot that could have gotten people down: the recent election of Donald Trump and death of Leonard Cohen chief on that list. There was just so much weighing everyone down that escape seemed impossible, but as it always does, music gobbled us up and came to the rescue — making connections and lifting spirits.
I’ve always known that you can tell a lot about someone by the kind of music they like; that makes a festival like Le Guess Who?, in which bands curate the lineup, that much more amplified. Essentially, the festival becomes an IRL mixtape stretched across venues throughout Utrecht in the Netherlands over a few days, all curated by Wilco, Suuns, Julia Holter, and Savages, whose interests and passions were quite alive.
Fans of Holter were wise to check out her picks, from experimental folk singer Circuit Des Yeux to father-and-son composers Tashi and Yoshi Wada — both connected to the singer’s haunting vocal stylings and cinematic arrangements. Those who came for Wilco also found the band’s adventurous Americana spirit through Tortoise and William Tyler. Giving the artists carte blanche to design the lineup in turn made Le Guess Who? feel like such a vibrant, palpable community.
That intimacy bled into every facet of the festival, building upon the reverie the lineup’s music inspired. And really, the 10th edition of Le Guess Who? was perhaps the most eclectic lineup of the year — featuring a Brazilian samba queen, an experimental accordion composer legend, and even Chicago house music hero. That may be jarring to regular festivalgoers yet somehow the festivities felt close-knit, balmy, and even cozy. The fuckers couldn’t keep us down.
Click through to read up on our top sets of the weekend and see our photo gallery.
10. Jessy Lanza
For an artist who has worked with both Junior Boys and Caribou, Jessy Lanza often doesn’t get enough attention for her solo work. The bouncy, spritely Canadian singer-songwriter has clear ties to the electronic music world, but her own music tends to lean towards more approachable synthpop. Lanza seemed magnetically attached to her keyboard at Le Guess Who?, her FKA twigs-esque dance moves guiding her away momentarily, only to be drawn right back to lead the way behind the instrument’s beautiful silver overlay. Even when pressing at the keys, she continuously moved, as if her body were generating the easy, bright, dance-friendly tunes. Lanza and her drummer kicked through “Kathy Lee” (from 2013’s Pull My Hair Back) and never looked back, engaging the growing crowd with her minimalist synthpop.
09. Black Mountain
There’s something timeless to Black Mountain, both in the sense that their rock ‘n’ roll transcends decades and the near-mystic chemistry that the band members tap into to produce it. Stephen McBean stood near the center of the stage, though it was clear that this wasn’t a one-man show — the group felt locked in, all engines running at the same speed. That unified front benefitted songs like the strutting “Stormy High” (from 2008’s In the Future), on which Amber Webber provided resonant counterpoint vocals and a high-held maraca. The setlist featured this year’s excellent IV prominently, and standout track “Line Them All Up” received a rousing reaction from the crowd. Black Mountain are growing increasingly confident in atmospheric drones, and that’s showing in their live show, as if they’ve tapped into the outer space jams of past classic rock bands.
08. Bo Ningen
Despite the attributes that might lend them to being outsiders, London-via-Japan noise metal outfit Bo Ningen are fitting in more and more on the world’s biggest stages. Clad in androgynous clothing, long black hair flailing wildly, the quartet performed their experimental, nuanced arrangements with all the cool fury of a more traditional rock band, throwing the large Le Guess Who? crowd into a frenzy. From frontman Taigen Kawabe holding his bass high and pulling snarling faces to Monchan Monna hammering away at the drums, they each had a specific role to play to put the complex tunes together, yet it looked and felt entirely effortless. “If you want to dance, you can,” Kawabe smiled. Considering the stage divers that followed, the crowded certainly heeded his friendly offer as moshers pushed closer to the Pandora stage than any of its other shows.
07. The Ex & Fendika // Zerfu
Legendary Dutch indie punks The Ex had a three-and-a-half-hour improvised music festival scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Le Guess Who?, featuring jazz and folk musicians from a few different countries. Their Saturday evening set acted as a kind of appetizer for that noisy smorgasbord as The Ex teamed with Ethiopian musicians Zerfu Demissie and Fendika. The former plays a begena, a massive 10-stringed harp that greeted us onstage before the musicians could. There it was, under the spotlight, front and centre, its ornate rim adorned with a regal design; I swear my knees instinctually attempted to bow down before it.
Frontman Arnold de Boer introduced Zerfu in English, calling it a “middle ground” between Dutch and Ethiopian. To give the begena harp its praise, the instrument is typically played during fasting times in Ethiopia and it’s dubbed the King David for good measure. The 15-minute prelude felt marginally biblical, strings plucked and snapped, wiring back and forth between his fingers filling the Ronda venue with thick echoed ambient drones. Fendika, meanwhile, are purveyors of traditional dance with voice, polyrhythmic percussion, and a single-stringed violin.
And, as verified by the teenager to one side of me and the much older woman to the other, The Ex’s long history of experimentation and cross-cultural collaboration have made Dutch audiences eager and ready for anything — kind of like an expansive version of Sonic Youth. At the set’s climax, guitarist Terrie Hessels used a drumstick like a bow before scraping the headstock on the edge of the stage, mouth wrenching with the chorded feedback. The Ex are legends in their country, and after witnessing such beautiful expression of art crossing borders of genre, nationality, and style, it’s easy to see why.
06. William Tyler
For someone who produces sweeping instrumental music, a folk traditionalist in many ways, William Tyler has spent much of his career fine-tuning his form. But it’s hard not to pick out Tyler’s goofy banter as the star of his show. The warm, charming Tennessee-born guitarist joked about the planetarium-like nature of the Hertz venue (“there should be stars … oh, this song is about aliens”), made “g-string” puns (after which introducing a song as “a tragic love song, stop laughing”), and evoked the American need to call out for “Free Bird”.
When not cracking wise, Tyler’s grand, contemplative, even nostalgic guitar suites unspooled throughout the room with dizzying tangles and stunning builds. Images of blissful encounters faded away into feelings of longing. “Missionary Ridge”, “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)”, and new song “Venus and Aquarius” all proved to be highlights, his guitar able to draw honey-golden light into the otherwise dark room, all with an easygoing charm.
At first, Tyler’s songs are direct, but they bend just enough that when they unfurl, every note becomes a vivid admission. Though he makes music that should be challenging — epic instrumental soundscapes — William Tyler’s music (and the musician himself) is some of the most easily likable and moving stuff around.
05. Circuit Des Yeux
At last year’s Le Guess Who?, Julia Holter turned in a breathtaking performance at Utrecht’s Janskerk, a Romanesque basilica founded around 1040. This year, Holter acted as curator as well as performer, and one of the performers she selected, Circuit Des Yeux, stole the show. Haley Fohr’s robust, booming voice of the space would color every square inch from the stone floor to the ribbed ceiling. Playing acoustic and solo, Fohr nonetheless had the volume power to transport the large crowd, songs like “A Story of This World” living and breathing as they filled the room.
It was as if the church were designed specifically for her experimental, pastoral folk, turning the potentially formal space into something much more intimate. The attendees picked up on that vibe, some holding heads up in awe, others closed eyes and dreaming, some lying on the floor, sinking into the ground letting the whole thing soak in. The acoustics were so beautiful that not only did Fohr’s music reverberate and permeate, I heard audible gasps from the audience, reacting to her stunning, unique voice. “One day I’m gonna pick up a tour bus with all y’all and take you around with me,” she smiled.
Speaking for those others in the church, we’re ecstatic to join the cult of Circuit Des Yeux.
04. Elza Soares
There is no performer in the world like Elza Soares … the so-called Brazilian Tina Turner. Festival co-founder Bob van Heur introduced the living legend, a rare occurrence and one that boded well for what was to come. Seated on a pitch-black throne atop a staircase covered in ropy material that resembled tree roots, the nearly 80-year-old vocalist looked like the tree of samba-life growing beautifully skyward through a shock of fluorescent purple hair. The sensual set got the whole crowd involved, singing, dancing, swinging beer-laden arms around. To say that it was the loudest and liveliest crowd would be an understatement — Soares’ set felt like entering an entirely other world, one you should only ever enter with other people, just to make sure it isn’t a dream sequence.
When you head into a samba performance, you might expect youth, vibrancy, dancing, energy. But any uncertainty caused by the elder Soares’ seated position were immediately thrown out the window, her mesmeric voice clear and mighty. Soares’ exquisite band supported this intense emotion, going so far as to huddle around her at set’s open to get their chemistry flowing. Soares clearly felt every word she sang, which, in turn, fueled the audience, a tear rolling down her cheek at only the second song. The genre’s grande dame draws from funk, soul, dub, and more, her voice pushing samba forward further into the world with each breath, at once beautiful and powerfully speaking to oppression and injustice in her home of Rio de Janeiro.
When Savages released their explosive Adore Life earlier this year, the socio-political stakes already seemed at an all-time high. The precise moment their Le Guess Who? performance arrived, with Brexit news still stinging and a recently elected Trump, Jehnny Beth’s snarling and cathartic caterwauling seemed all the more vital.
She stood at the stage’s end, thumping her heart with her fist as if to keep it going. She urged people onto the stage to dive into the crowd; there was even a moment at which she pushed one man off as he leaned towards the waiting hands, arms stretched wide open as if entering a ritualistic sacrifice. She stalked the stage, microphone reaching towards amps to search for the best feedback. She even took her shoes off prior to jumping into the crowd herself, as if to keep from hurting anyone with a misplaced steel-toe.
That duality was the key to Savages’ performance, and really, to the band as a whole: They are as full of love and care as they are rage and fury. Only Savages can close with a song called “Fuckers” because of its healing power rather than division. “We believe people feel better after it,” Beth offered, and the motorik rallying cry that followed certainly did that trick. “Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” a picture perfect distillation for what it means to live in this world right now.
“You and I will try to stay together yeah/ On and on and on we’ll be together yeah,” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy sang Thursday night at the Grote Zaal in the festival’s venue hub, TivoliVredenburg. The languid guitars and gently mounting melody of “On and On and On” matched the frontman’s skeptical but hopeful mood after the American elections smacked us in the gut two days prior. Reportedly, the band even canceled scheduled press stops, incapable of spending mental energy on anything but contemplating the new absurd reality of their home. By the time they got to the stage, however, rays of sunlight started peeking in despite the massive gray clouds: “I’m heartened today to see how many people in our country are realizing that it’s all up to us now. People must stop depending on the government in order to take care of each other.”
Rather than believe the world is a garbage pit and let the election spoil things, Tweedy and co. were thrilled to be kicking off the weekend. I remember newly printed posters lining the walls of TivoliVredenburg last year announcing them as 2017’s headliner, but they morphed from performers to curators for LGW’s 10th edition, one of the four musical acts picking a bill of artists to play the fest. As such, their fingerprints were all over the place: Steve Gunn, William Tyler, Deerhoof, WAND, and Arnold Dreyblatt charmed crowds with virtuosic sets — and that was just day one.
Their set, too, spread across two hours, 26 songs, and 10 albums, gave the rabid Dutch crowd a full overview of Wilco’s world, from “Box Full of Letters” off debut A.M. to highlights from this year’s Schmilco. But they were loud, and there was lunacy: “Bull Black Nova” afforded a new potency in this startling context, drummer Glenn Kotche marching his drums up a frantic hill during the reprise, while the rest of the band carried on playing as though they weren’t in the middle of a storm. It sounded as if each snare and hi-hat were caught in a wasp’s nest, doused in oil, and then lit on fire — the tangled off-kilter arrangements swarmed the verses intermittently, a show of infectious fascination propelling Wilco further into the realm of living legends.
01. Junun feat. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express
Imagine feeling yourself floating in the air without ever having jumped: That’s what it felt like listening to Junun, the collaboration of the Rajasthan Express (a group composed of different types of North Indian folk musicians), Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The musicians entered the Grote Zaal space down the staircase, trumpets raised high and hands waving and clapping. It felt like being welcomed into some grand ritual, Ben Tzur swapping between a guitar and a wood flute to lead the way. The crowd became a flowing ocean of people, their raised arms moving together in waves entirely by instinct.
Throughout the performance, Ben Tzur would speak continuously in Hebrew, translating into English without a breath, the flow of languages constant and beautiful. “You are blessed on the grace and the hardships, on the longing and the sacrifices, and on everything that will bring me closer to you,” he smiled. “Modeh ani modeh, I am grateful to you.” The following song, “Modeh”, rode a grooving hand drum rhythm, stabs of skyward-reaching horns punctuating the group’s chorus. The Rajasthan Express hail from India, Greenwood from England, and yet they all sounded thrilled to sing this praise in Hebrew — but then that’s the point of the project, breaking down borders and bringing beauty to the world.
The heaving crowd was easily the largest of the weekend, and the fluid beats that brought all their bodies moving en masse made this the perfect end to the festival. Greenwood was certainly a major draw, but he took a place near the back and off of the riser, sure to give the spotlight to the amazing musicians of the Express. The group reveled in the opportunity to share their international artistry and expert musicianship, and the crowd was thrilled by the experience, yet another moment of border-obliterating joy courtesy of Junun.
Click ahead for our complete gallery…
Photographer: Lior Phillips