Every year, the charmingly, quirkily named festival Le Guess Who? takes over Utrecht for a weekend in November, with shows spread out across venues around town and throughout the theater complex TivoliVredenburg. And every year, you can rely on the festival to boast some of the most diverse, surprising, and often revelatory lineups out of any festival that operates on this scale. For its 2019 installment, Le Guess Who? was perhaps more idiosyncratic and adventurous than ever.
Like with past iterations of LGW, the main lineup was also rounded out by contributions from curators — this year’s crew included Jenny Hval, Moon Duo, Patrick Higgins, Kevin Martin of the Bug, Fatoumata Diawara, and Iris Van Herpen with Salvador Breed. With the disposition of the curators helping dictate the festival, each lineup becomes a little different, skewing in one direction or another. But there were two main takeaways from its 2019 version: It leaned in a more consistently experimental direction than even before, and across the board it delved further into its efforts to book (often legendary, very influential) non-Western musicians who would rarely have the exposure or opportunity to play another European festival at all adjacent to the indie world.
I mean, Le Guess Who? is not a small festival; there are a ton of artists playing each year. And in that context, your biggest names are people like Deerhunter and the Raincoats? People are as excited for Jenny Hval and Holly Herndon sets as attendees normally would be for, like, Tame Impala at Gov Ball? The headliners this year were often the most avant-garde characters, figures from the fringes of the indie mainstream. And they were the pop artists in this context. The whole thing is sort of disorienting, but in an invigorating way. It’s a breath of fresh air.
Part of that is certainly location and the different cultures you bump up against just by being there. For example, take the case of Efterklang. Perhaps a niche concern or remembered for their links to stuff like early era Grizzly Bear, the Danish group returned as conquering heroes. Their headlining set on Thursday filled the giant auditorium on the ground floor of Tivoli with a raptly attentive audience. And that was to hear Efterklang perform meditative material from a new Danish-language album that most of the audience — which is seemingly mostly other Europeans, with the occasional American — couldn’t understand.
It didn’t matter; this was a spectral, patient performance with many beautiful passages that served as a fittingly dramatic opening curtain on the weekend. The next day, Efterklang frontman Casper Clausen also played a much more intimate show — just him in the middle of a room with a keyboard and a computer, surrounded by people sitting on the floor — to unveil solo material he’s been working on with Sonic Boom in Portugal. It’s more in the electronic-oriented vein of Efterklang’s other band, Liima, and it sounded excellent.
That happened again and again over the weekend. What other festival would have a late night performance from Xylouris White? And what other festival would bring in an audience that is going to fervently, intently be present for that late night set, taking in all of the duo’s gorgeous, elusive melodies rather than something more danceable? (Given, Jim White remains a marvel of a drummer to witness in person, and the set was not without its grooves.)
Sometimes, the crowd was a little too excited for these artists. One of the festival’s remaining limitations is that the structure of Tivoli — several venues of varying sizes spread out between eight or nine floors and linked by escalators — means that the crowd can be funneled into the same directions rushing to the most in-demand performances. There was a line of what must’ve been 200 people waiting to see Sudan Archives when her venue was already at capacity at the start of her set.
Not to say that wasn’t justifiable: Sudan Archives has been steadily leveling up. Two years ago she played Le Guess Who?, a well-attended but not packed set in one of the smaller rooms from an artist that was gathering buzz. Now, with one more EP and a debut album under her belt, she returned as one of the most enticing names on the lineup, and brought a new level of confidence and prowess to match it. (Another new fan of Sudan’s is apparently Björk, who had been in Utrecht to do a surprise DJ set at the festival and who I noticed standing next to me in the crowd when Sudan was playing, of all things, “Iceland Moss.”)
The same went for Girl Band, who play small to mid-sized clubs in the States and yet here played to a room of 2,000. Their intense noise rock felt like explosions after explosions reverberating through the room. Keeping with the more abrasive end LGW often fosters, there was an inspired bit of booking by having Lightning Bolt do the same right after, making for two full hours of instruments being pushed to their outer limits from artists across different generations of noise rock.
Along the way, there’s often space for one-off collaborations or debuts of new performances. Moor Mother teamed with ZONAL and Nazamba for an apocalyptic, haunting set late on the first night. Two days later, Jenny Hval showcased her new Practice Of Love show, with all its different visuals and scripted moments, in a theater down the road from the epicenter of Le Guess Who? — it was one more extension of Hval’s commitment to conceptually thorough work, and an instance that served as a reminder that Le Guess Who? also has the room for shows that aren’t even necessarily straightforward music performances.
Beyond these artfully-minded endeavors, there was also plenty of discovery to be had this year. The Dur-Dur Band delivered their Somali funk in a blistering, infectious dance party one night, Ayalew Mesfin did the same with his Ethio-groove another. There were performers who were highlighting traditions that could be left out of the main Western-perception narrative, or are in danger of disappearing altogether — like Ustad Saami, who performed an ancient form of Islamic devotional music.
By Sunday night, you could’ve already had your mind pulled in new, unforeseen directions — especially if it had been blown by Moon Duo’s new visuals. Yet while many festivals would start to wind down as the weekend wanes and the work week looms, some of the most anticipated acts of the weekend provided a grand finale for the whole festival. Cate Le Bon gave a stirring, muscular performance of the excellent material from her new album Reward; quipping that she hoped the audience liked saxophones, she and her six-piece band accentuated the knottier, art-rock edges of songs like “Magnificent Gestures” and “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines.”
There was also Holly Herndon’s set, perhaps the most stunning and transfixing of Le Guess Who? 2019. PROTO is, in many ways, an album you might initially think you don’t need to hear performed live — it is powerful and strange enough on its own, and how could it really translate if it’s just one person onstage with a laptop? Turns out that’s not what Herndon did at all. She and three other singers convulsed and threw their arms as if mid-ritual, recreating all of the album’s chopped up sounds and cooing digitized chorales in front of a screen playing dystopian sci-fi clips. Once they got to their rendition of “Frontier,” it felt like you we were watching religious music in an in-house cathedral on an alien mothership.
Perhaps Le Guess Who? couldn’t work quite the same way Stateside. Perhaps it will always remain unique because of the little corner its carved out for itself. But each year, it remains impressive to witness what this festival brings together, the boundaries it pushes and the new sounds it seeks to expose you to. You could have dozens of awestruck moments across the weekend, and know that you missed dozens that others had across town, watching a completely different array of artists than you. It’s been years now of festivals settling into a kind of sameness. And after all that, we need counterpoints like Le Guess Who? even more.