Le Guess Who? Festival Shaken By WWI Rock, Grot-Rap And Drones

SPEND ENOUGH TIME WANDERING between venues in Utrecht, a culturally dynamic city in the central Netherlands, and you can’t help noticing two statues of rabbits. One is a representation of Miffy, the beloved kids’ cartoon bunny created by local guy Dick Bruna. The other, entitled Thinker On A Rock, is a demonic and tortured being which pastiches Rodin and formerly had its own comic strip in local homeless paper Straatnieuws.

“Neubauten utilise shell cases and a stringed instrument made out of crutches.”

The intriguing divergences don't end there. Veteran gig-goers to the city will probably have attended the old Tivoli venue, which has now closed and been reincarnated as a musicians’ commune. Thus, the city’s main concert space has been regenerated as the gleaming new TivoliVredenburg. It’s here that much of the action takes place for this latest Le Guess Who?, the four-day festival of independent music held yearly since 2007. A multi-levelled nexus of bars, concert spaces and the obligatory smoking alcoves, the TivoliVredenburg at times recalls an airport or a shopping centre – the kind of locations that would’ve got JG Ballard’s glands going when he wrote novels like High Rise and Kingdom Come. Like Ballard's characters, will Le Guess Who?-goers descend into modern savagery, or find blessed escape?

Dr.John marks his 74th birthday onstage with cake. Photo: Juri Hiensch

Thursday night begins, at the ground floor Grote Zaal, with an almighty impact. It is Einstürzende Neubauten’s tenth performance of Lament, their First World War concept album. As is their wont, this legion of the damned utilise clanging machine parts, percussion fashioned from shell cases and a stringed instrument made out of a pair of crutches, as songs relate the utmost historic catastrophe. Der 1.Weltkrieg, for example, lists the war’s combatants and their battles, accompanied by three-man pipe-banging action, while The Willy-Nicky Telegrams sees guitar and bassman Alexander Hacke and implacable lead voice Blixa Bargeld reciting correspondence between Germany’s Kaiser and Russia’s Tsar – cousins, remember, who led the world to war. In such a fashion, two-odd hours evaporate, grippingly. Later there’s an Austin Psych Fest night at top floor heads' attic Pandora, where electric Tuaregs Tamikrest and Robert Hampson’s all-new new line-up of Loop show their genuine need to trance out. But in truth, the sheer gravity of Lament has rendered some silent reflection necessary.

There’s more of that than is desirable on Friday. Many are left outside for Calgary noise-popsters Viet Cong, while Rodion G.A. – AKA the godfathers of communist-era Rumanian techno – is another missed opportunity. But then back at the Pandora, underground explorer Dean Blunt re-establishes contact, switching between jazzular noir, crunching aural experiments and trenchant vocalising on a stage in almost complete darkness. “When you’re married to the streets, it’s hard to get a divorce,” he observes. Over at the Ronda venue, Dr. John would probably know how to do it. His set includes Iko Iko, I Walk On Guilded Splinters and Right Place Wrong Time, given a showbiz-charged presentation by his Nite Trippers band. But it’s arguably when Rebennack – whose 74th birthday it is, and who recieves a cake onstage – is allowed to play a stark and bluesy version of Earl King’s song Mama And Papa on the guitar that he best shows off his unique cachet.

“Local cult Harry Merry sings fast and bulbous keyboard oddities like Sharki’s Supermachine.”

Come Saturday morning, and there are Dutch acts – presented under the umbrella Le Mini Who? - to see at venues on the city centre’s Voorstraat. From Frisia in the north of the Netherlands, Yuko Yuko are first up at the Kapitaal, who blend Cocteaus shoegaze delicacy with the freaky dancin’ appeal of Happy Mondays (the band’s two guitarists Elias and Jaap also convince with their indie-pop outfit The Homesick). Over at The Village Garage, pre-psych rock’n’rollers De Kliko’s make a righteous Billy Childish-like racket, while local cult Harry Merry sings fast and bulbous keyboard oddities like Sharki’s Supermachine at gloriously named hangout spot De Bastaard.

Clearly, we are in danger of too much levity. Back at the Ronda, Swans man Michael Gira has curated the three-day Mouth To Mouth programme, which presents Savages and Bo Ningen’s hypnotic a cappella/freeform collaboration, Words To The Blind. It’s Wire who fare most exuberantly: poppy new track Manchester recalls the middle ’80s, Robert Gotobed is still a powerful drummer, and old material like Map Ref 41°N 93°W is clearly drawn from the same well as more recent works like Doubles & Trebles. Next up is a brooding and hypnagogic show by Swans, after which we adjourn to the Pandora for an abstract cerebral pulping from Montreal sound artist Tim Hecker, as he starts what’s billed as a ‘24 Hour Dronefest’, at midnight.

Savages' Jehnny Beth. Photo Erik Luyten.

At this point at most festivals it’s now time to sigh and head home. Le Guess Who?, though, keeps things rolling: Sunday afternoon in the Vredenburg foyer there’s a live broadcast by Brooklyn guitar ace Steve Gunn for nationwide music channel 3VOOR12. Joined by a local rhythm section, his ululating performance of recent LP title track Way Out Weather sounds glorious, and suitably it turns out to be an afternoon of yet more wondrous guitars. Nearby at the Hertz venue, Boston flamenco classicist (and former Vanguard recording artiste) Peter Walker is followed by the northern European lute minimalism of Jozef van Wissem. Half an hour later Van Wissem’s erstwhile collaborator, super-attuned finger-picking guitar talent James Blackshaw, is keeping the Dronefest hordes hypnotised and drawn to the bar and beanbags on the floor…

Best get over to packed canalside pub venue the Ekko for Sleaford Mods’ set, then. Their wired Notts grafting of hip hop and punk aggro provides vorticist blasts of rage on incensed singalongs like Jolly Fucker, Jobseeker, McFlurry and Middle Men. It’s possibly incongruous that some audience members’ reaction to the songs is simply to chortle at the swearing, but there's no denying the particular vehemence imparted when British Rail-tattooed verbaliser Jason Williamson barks and cuffs the back of his head while producer Andrew Fearn nods and chugs ales (watch footage of their early afternoon 3VOOR12 set below).

There’s just time to catch Selda Bağcan, godmother of Turkish protest psych, keeping things vertiginous in the company of tuba-powered Tel Aviv rock freaks Boom Pam. The last 15 minutes of the Dronefest, which is closed by Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), are designated as “silence”. This makes sense. Happily dazed after such a blistering four-day stretch of entertainment, what are you meant to say?

Sleaford Mods photo by Tom Roelofs. For more information head to www.leguesswho.nl.