Le Guess Who: Day 4 “Your embarrassing drunk aunt at a wedding”

This is the final part of my fascinating account of the Le Guess Who festival. Previously I posted about the first, second and third days.

The last day of Le Guess Who was Sunday 11 November, which was an exciting day for me as it was the hundredth anniversary of the Western Front armistice, about which I had many posts on my amazing World War 1 blog. But being now in 2018, the day began not with last minute heroics but with food. My beloved and I had signed up for this thing called Le Feast, which was another spin-off from the main Le Guess Who, which in this case saw people (i.e. us) going to the homes of random Utrecht residents for brunch. In our case we made a short journey outside the central zone to the home of Daniek and Jaap where we were served tasty noms of a broadly Middle Eastern inspired variety. Other guests included a Dutch goldsmith and an anglophone couple who revealed that they were Welsh when I asked if they were from “England” [/embarrassment]; they turned out to be coffee roasters. The whole experience was very enjoyable, largely thanks to our gracious hosts and the tasty food they served us, which was delicious without being nonsensical. In fact the brunch might be the highlight of the festival and I urge anyone who goes to Le Guess Who next year to make sure they sign up for it. I am making myself hungry just thinking of it again. If the table looks bare in the photographs that is because we had eaten all the food by the time the photographer arrived.
I then tried to catch a concert in by Eleanor Friedberger playing in an out of the way venue but so it turned out did everyone else. Once I realised that the queue I had joined was for people to be admitted on a one-in-one-out basis and not the queue to be let in once the doors opened I made my excuses and left. I did think of heading into the outer suburbs of Utrecht to see Mudhoney but this plan ran aground on account of my not being arsed and also fearing that their venue would also be too full, earning me a wasted journey for our troubles. So instead beloved and I went to the Belgian beer pub that boasts its own pub cat, or so Mr B—- had informed us. We did not see the cat but we did see his bowl.

Circuit des Yeux

And then to the Tivoli for a last evening of music. In the big venue we saw Circuit des Yeux performing music with members of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. I had previously listened to Ms des Yeux’s recent album Reaching for Indigo but I can’t say it made much of a positive impression on me. I recall enjoying the live performance more but did wonder how much of that was down to the semi-orchestral accompaniment. I’m not sure exactly what it is that puts me off the Circuit des Yeux project. I mean, she is a bit goth so should be right up my alley, but I find her deep vocal style a bit unappealing (and yet a deep female vocal style has never put me off the likes of Nico). I think I might be the problem here.
Cocktail Bar

It may have been around this point that I had an Old Fashioned from the festival cocktail bar. It was very nice.

The next performance was a more bizarre one as it was by Eartheater, whose description in the programme as a “Queens based artist” was considered ominous in some quarters. Ms Eartheater vocalises to synthesiser accompaniment, with her vocals seeming to me at least to be more or less completely non-verbal. There was also a dance element to her performance or at least a physicality to it that approximated to dance while perhaps deriving from first principles rather than any kind of rigorous dance training (NB I have no idea of Ms Eartheater’s background; she could be trained ballerina for all I know). As avant-garde nonsense goes I found this performance very impressive but there were aspects of it I found a bit problematic. Specifically she wore some class of crop top that continuously threatened to fall down and reveal her assets to the audience; eventually it did [/spoiler]. I suppose I am bit old and weird and not down with the young people and their letting-it-all-hang-out philosophy, but this bit seemed somewhat gratuitous to me and undermined the serious bonkers avant-garde artist schtick that the rest of the performance was going for.


“Your embarrassing drunk aunt at a wedding” was how one person was heard to describe Ms Eartheater but, poppage and subsequent topless performance notwithstanding, I would still judge her to be one of the festival’s highlights.

We stuck our nose into the venue where Lucrecia Dalt was playing but left again as her music was a bit too quiet. But when we found ourselves watching The Comet Is Coming the opposite was the case and their extreme volume sent us on our way, as well as the faint fear that with their combo of synthy keyboards and jazz saxophone they were like the evil progressive jazz band in La La Land (an unfair comparison).

The Comet Is Coming

That brought us almost to the end of the night. For the want of anything better to to do my beloved and I repaired to another of the Tivoli venues to see Swamp Dogg, who is an R&B performer of advanced years. The music was of the old school blues and R&B variety but the real star here was Mr Swamp Dogg himself, who is both blessed with a still impressive voice for that kind of music and an extremely rofflesome persona. I particularly liked when he stopped in the middle of singing a song about how he is some class of lover man to say “Not anymore I’m not – maybe 20 years ago”. His inability to remember his band’s names when he was trying to introduce them was a poignant reminder of what lies ahead of us. And he also had to be restrained by his band when he was looking to climb down off the stage into the audience, an attempt that looked like it could have led to disaster, given his now fragile state. There was something very life affirming about Swamp Dogg’s performance and it made for a perfect end to the festival.
Swamp Dogg

Final Verdict

The test with any festival is whether you would go again. I am not sure with Le Guess Who, as two of its featured irritated me. Firstly was the massive multi-tracking and the FOMO it engendered, rendered all the more acute by the fact that so many of the acts were unfamiliar to me that it was not always obvious which ones should be plumped for. I have been to other massively multi-tracked festivals before, notably Glastonbury, but the problem here seemed to be much more acute, perhaps because this indoor city festival was not as relaxing as an outdoor hippy festival in olde England. The other irksome factor was the frequency with which it proved impossible to see plumped-for performers, because the venues they were playing in were full to capacity. That meant that it was consistently impossible to rush straight from one concert to another as one needed to be in a venue half an hour before an artist started to be sure of catching the performance. But maybe these are minor irritations and I will next year find myself at Le Guess Who once more.


Le Feast images, by Mirel Masic (Facebook: Le Feast 2018)

Swamp Dogg and I, by Jeimer De Haas (Le Guess Who: LGW18 – Photo Recap Day 4)

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Le Guess Who: Day Three – frenetic world music and 17th century proto-atonality

This is the third part of my interminable account of my time at the Le Guess Who festival. Previously I posted about the first and second days. This post deals with things I saw on Saturday 10 November.

After lying in until after our housemates had disappeared off into the fleshpots of Utrecht, my Beloved and I had our own breakfast and went off to a former industrial area beyond the old Utrecht walls. Bringing us here was an exhibition of material by the industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose work is often advertised in the pages of the LRB (the other paper of record). Mr Rams is known for the simplicity and clarity of his design work, values that were sadly not in evidence in the venue where his work was being displayed, as it was extremely difficult to find a way into the exhibition space, which appeared to be completely unsignposted. It turned out that the exhibition could only be accessed from the toilet space of a local restaurant. The exhibition itself featured a pleasing range of consumer electronic items of yore, featuring interesting pieces of audiovisual kit from an age when such things did not all have to be black.

That evening then saw us catch a triple header of World music type stuff in the Tivoli’s Cloud Nine venue (so called because it is located on the ninth floor). First up was Hailu Mergia, the taxi-driving Ethiojazz sensation who treated us to his smooth stylings. Then there was Cüneyt Sepetçi, a Turkish clarinettist playing what was billed as Turkish gypsy music. It was pretty exciting and indeed quite dancey, like a slightly more sedate version of Omar Souleyman. Indeed, for all that Turkish and Syrian music are different to each other, this had me thinking that it must be like the unelectronic ur-music on which Souleyman’s turbo-dabke accompaniment is based on.

Speaking of Omar Souleyman, the third of the world musicers was none other than Rizan Said, Omar Souleyman’s keyboardist. It was not clear why he was playing without the vocalist; is there a disturbance in the Force that has sundered their partnership or was Said just playing some solo gigs to show that he has the necessary chops? No answer was provided though his bio in the Le Guess Who programme reports that he has provided music to numerous Syrian artists, as well as to Syrian films and TV programmes, so perhaps he is seeking to make clear that he has an independent existence to the dabke master.

The synthesised music that Said was playing was broadly similar to that which he plays on Omar Souleyman records: frenetic, preternaturally fast approximations to acoustic drum patterns and mental wind instrument melodies. It was great for the dancing and there were even some people attempting dabke dancing in the audience. Initially he played on his own but then he was joined by a vocalist, whose name I did not learn. This guy was interesting, as I found it impossible not to compare him to Souleyman. He was definitely a more accomplished singer, with a far more tuneful voice, but he lacked the astonishing charisma of the master. Nevertheless, we saluted his efforts.

It was now quite late and we made our way from the Tivoli complex, but not to the rest of our bed but to the Janskerk, where we caught the last third of 17th century composer Carlo Gesualdo‘s Tenebrae Responsoria, a four hour long suite of music being performed by the Graindelavoix vocal ensemble. Most people I know are unfamiliar with the crazy life and works of Mr Gesualdo, but I had previous with him thanks to a concert in Dublin by local choral group Gaudete that focused on his work. The most notorious detail of his life is that he murdered his wife and her lover after discovering them in the act of love, escaping legal retribution because nobles like him were above the law. His music is known for its prefiguring of atonal music of the 20th century.

Previous concerts we had attended in the Janskerk had the performers at one end with all the seats facing towards them. For the Tenebrae Responsoria they rearranged the seating so that there was a long central aisle, towards which the pews now faced, perpendicular to the front of the church. The performers, a relatively small group of vocalists, did their thing in the central aisle, but they changed location between each subsection, so people sitting in different locations got to see and hear them up close at least some of the time and interest themselves with the Janskerk’s acoustics as the performers changed location. Overall this was a magical and spectral experience and a definite highlight of the festival, with the only downside being the couple of buzzwreckers who had smoked or drank a bit too much and were a bit disruptive until one of them fell asleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE: neither of the buzzwreckers appear in the above picture.
final part of my Le Guess Who write-up coming real soon


Dieter Rams record player (Modern Magazine – Dieter Rams: Obsolescence Is a Crime)

Carlo Gesualdo (Wikipedia)

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Le Guess Who: Day Two

This is part two of my account of November’s Le Guess Who festival in Utrecht. Part one can be seen here. This part deals with Friday 9 November, the second day of the festival.

The main part of the festival was taking a break during the day, which left us with an opportunity to visit a place called BAK to see an exhibition entitled Forensic Justice that was being shown in conjunction with Le Guess Who. This had been put together by Forensic Architecture, a radical architectural organisation headed by Eyal Weizman, whose work has previously appeared in the LRB (the other paper of record). We watched a series of videos where the Forensic Architecture people carefully dissected video and other evidence to investigate official narratives of events. These were interesting as examples of how the panopticon society in which we live does not just lead to a Big Brother society in which the State continuously watches us, but one in which non-state actors have the tools to expose illicit state action.
Some of the Forensic Justice installations were pretty intense, like the reconstructions from multiple CCTV images of a hospital in Aleppo being bombed by the Syrian air force, which showed people being thrown around by the force of an explosion, or their analysis of the killing of two Palestinian school children (unarmed, not obviously taking part in rioting or even demonstrations, apparently on their way home from school), which showed they were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live bullets but falsely claiming to have fired only rubber bullets.

For me though I think the most upsetting was an analysis of the fatal beating of Pavlos Fyssas, a Greek anti-fascist, by members of the Golden Dawn, with the analysis of Forensic Architecture showing that the Greek police had stood by and let the attack happen. What made that the most disturbing I think is that crazy things (hospitals being bombed or soldiers shooting school kids) seem almost normal in crazy places like Syria or Palestine, but they are much more unheimlich in an urbane and democratic country like Greece. Good job nothing like that happens closer to home, eh readers?

The last examination we saw by Forensic Architecture was something of a relief as it did not involve anyone losing their life. Instead by careful analysis of several video clips they appeared to disprove the assertion of the Italian coast guard that a sea rescue vessel was operating in concert with people smugglers.

There was more of Forensic Justice that we could have watched (something to with the unfortunate plight of Orangoutangs) but I can only take so much, so we left BAK and headed off to Lombok, which is another area of Utrecht where a Le Guess Who satellite festival was taking place. Beside an impressive mosque there was a food market taking place, with stalls selling a variety of tasty noms. We sampled their wares. Lombok seems to be multicultural bit of Utrecht so we were also treated to some guys walking around playing drums and those squeaking trumpets they have in the Orient. There were also some children doing some class of traditional dance for us; I think they might have been Turkish rather than Arab but it’s hard to tell. I definitely admired their intense concentration.

And then we strolled around Lombok looking for further excitement. And we found it in the form of some class of Dabke flashmob taking place outside a church. If you do not know Dabke, it is the traditional dance thing from Syria and Palestine and other places round there, typically done by guys joining arms, often forming rings that rotate frenetically. This is what was going on here, with some attempt to bring home to Whitey that Dabke does feature actual steps and is not just all about the speed. We watched amusedly from a distance, careful not to be drawn into the maniacal gyres.

At some point we were sated by Dabke, so pretty much at random visited a place called the Ubuntuhuis, where some chap called Cengiz Arslanpay was going to be combining electronic music with his ney flute (ney!). The Ubuntuhuis turned out not to be a place for people to hang out working on the latest Linux releases but rather some class of centre for homeless people and persons newly arrived in the country. The venue where Mr Arslanpay was playing was living room sized and we were all more or less on top of the player but that made it all that bit more entertaining. Sadly he was unable to treat us to his electronics for reasons but he did play a succession of different Turkish flutes.

My Beloved and I reunited with our spiritual guru Mr B— in the Tivoli complex and went to see some chap called Serpentwithfeet (I think he might call himself serpentwithfeet but I do not hold with proper nouns beginning with lower case letters; frankly he should be glad I am leaving the spaces out of his name). Mr Feet is not actually a serpent, footed or otherwise, but an impractical red anorak wearing fellow from the USA. He apparently used to be a choirboy but now he makes music that is sometimes classed as experimental but seemed to me to be a fairly accessible form of R&B. The real joy of his performance came from his persona as presented to the audience, which was basically camp and endearingly positive. Everyone who saw him was happier than they were beforehand.

We then split off to the Janskerk again to see some of Vashti Bunyan, the lost folkie sensation who is now back in action. Ms Bunyan whispers very quietly between songs but then when singing projects at an audible but restrained volume suiting the delicate nature of her songs. She is also a bit of a roffler, quipping at one point that back in the day she was told her music had no commercial potential before launching into ‘Train Song’, from whose relentless use in films and advertisements she has made a mint. Overall though I wished that scheduling had meant that I arrived early enough to get a good seat at the front.

Back in the Tivoli complex I let myself be brought to see Paddy Steer, wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. For the first song I thought that maybe I had but then either he got better or I was reprogrammed. Mr Steer’s music is an odd combination of analogue synth sounds and live drumming, with his vocals affected by the vocoder type thing he has in the space helmet he wears for some of the songs. I was intrigued by the question of whether all of the music was strictly live, as the drumming seemed pretty intricate and hard to imagine someone doing while also playing synths but it was impossible to be certain either way as he had a bank of equipment largely obscuring our view of whatever he was doing with his hands. We nevertheless did get to see his impressive space suit. Overall Paddy Steer hovers gamely on the borderlands between weirdo art music and novelty shite, staying I think on the right side of that boundary.

I stuck my head briefly into where Blanck Mass were playing and was a bit surprised by what I saw. Blanck Mass have a membership overlap with Fuck Buttons, but the my sense of how they divided was that Fuck Buttons played the more heavy beaty stuff while Blanck Mass play music that is not entirely dissimilar except that it is a bit beat free, making the music a weird kind of in your face ambient (use your Babbage machine to compare Fuck Button’s ‘Brainfreeze‘ with Blanck Mass’s ‘Chernobyl‘). But on the face of this performance Fuck Buttons and Blanck Mass appear to have converged, with the music on offer tonight featuring lots of big fucking beats. I reckon this would have been great to dance to if you were so inclined. Even as listening music it was not unentertaining, but we were a bit *tired* so we repaired to our house and caught some Zzzzzs.

Day three coming soon!

Exhibition image source:

The Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Hospital in Aleppo (Forensic Architecture: Forensic Justice)

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Le Guess Who: Day One

Since the demise of All Tomorrow’s Parties many have wondered if something would ever arise to take its place. Earlier this year my old friend and quaffing partner Mr B— asked me if I was interested in attending Le Guess Who in Utrecht. I was curious and as always am eager to hear exciting sounds, so I agreed to go, with the promise of a line-up based around strange weirdo music being the draw. This is an account of what happened there.

Le Guess Who is a city festival, with concerts taking place in venues across Utrecht but particularly focussed on the Tivoli Vredenburg, a central complex of multiple performance spaces, ranging from ones reminiscent of the Barbican main stage down to more intimate locales. As a city festival, Le Guess Who does not provide convivial chalet accommodation to its attendees; rather they must find their own places to stay, scattered across the attractive Dutch town. In our case we were staying in an Airbnb house in the university quarter, we being Mr B—, my beloved, Mr McG—, and myself.

The quaint olde worldeness of Utrecht
If you’ve never been to Utrecht and are wondering what it’s like… well it’s a bit like Amsterdam. Or rather all those olde Dutch town are like each other: canals, dinky buildings, sudden bursts of modernist architecture. Utrecht has less tourists than Amsterdam, but it makes up for the lack of stag party dickheads with another menace: out of control cyclists. It has also has a strangely non-Euclidean street layout that keeps feeling like it is approximating to a grid system when actually it is not. I think other people of less logical minds (and a willingness to let Google guide them around) found the city easier to navigate; for the first couple of days I was reduced to following them around hoping they knew where they were going. Anyway, let me adopt a day-by-day approach to the festival which may turn out to just be a list of people I saw as I am writing this a good bit afterwards and did not take any notes back then because I am a fule.

On the first night of the festival (a Thursday) an initial bug/feature of the event became apparent: it is massively multi-tracked. If you are lucky there are only five things to choose from at any one time, but there were sometimes more. So it was that I found myself missing DRINKS (sadly not a drinks reception but a two-person band featuring Cate Le Bon and someone else) and instead found myself in the Domkerk seeing an ensemble called ONCEIM performing a piece called ‘Occam Océan’. Who were they and what was this? Well ONCEIM are a contemporary music ensemble, the name being some class of acronym (in French, so I won’t write out the words as you would not understand them). ‘Occam Océan’ is a collaboration with Éliane Radigue, the French composer being bigged up by many cool members of Frank’s APA, the paper of record. The piece was a fascinating piece of edgy contemporary classical music, which broadly speaking might be my favourite class of music, and atmospheric environs of the church were a great place to hear it.

Forward thinking
ONCEIM were going to be playing again with Stephen O’Malley of SUNN-O))) but the festival’s multi-tracking and our own craving of varied experiences drew us away from the Domkerk to the Tivoli complex where after some exploration we settled down in front of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, legendary political jazz figures of yore (well they appear on that political jazz comp from SoulJazz). They were playing in the big main venue in the Tivoli, where every seat has a good view, and we looked down upon them like Olympians.
Then we hightailed it to another church, this one being the Janskerk, where the Jerusalem In My Heart Orchestra were playing. They had already started when we arrived and, as is traditional with church venues, bad sight lines meant it was a real struggle to actually see anything of the performance. Eventually though I managed to reach a point where I could see some of the musicians and some of the images being projected behind them, which looked like they were portrait photographs from the 1950s and 1960s by Lebanese photographer Hashem el Madani, about whom I remember reading on the BBC News website; his photographs are mostly portraits, of individuals (sometimes posing with guns) and friends. Musically Jerusalem In My Heart play Middle Eastern classical music. On this occasion they were joined by an orchestra from Beirut (suggesting that normally they are not actually an orchestra) and were playing some 1928 piece from Egypt. Readers, I liked it and wished I had caught the whole concert from a comfy seat with a good view of the stage.

At that point we could have headed back to the Tivoli to catch any number of acts who were playing late into the night but instead we heeded the call of bed.

Scratched photograph image source:

Mrs Baqari, by Hashem el Madani (BBC News Magazine – Zaatari and Madani: Guns, flared trousers and same-sex kisses)

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