Julia Holter, Magma & Sunn O))) Thrill At Le Guess Who? Fest!

CONCEIVED IN 2007 as a one night celebration of contemporary Canadian indie, it’s fair to say that the Le Guess Who? festival has grown in strength and vision. Now running from Thursday to Sunday (November 19-22 this year) at more than 15 venues across bijoux, arresting Utrecht, it offers international acts of exhilarating uniqueness – this year’s headliners include Faust, Kamasi Washington and synth-jazz chanteuse Annette Peacock, who never plays anywhere, plus The Pop Group, Os Mutantes, Deerhunter, Charlemagne Palestine, Destroyer and more. With more than 200 bands and a manageable 4,000 attendees per day, the appeal to the discerning music fan is clear.

“It offers international acts of exhilarating uniqueness.”

This year, Seattle dronelords Sunn O))) have devised a festival-long programme of acts, and one of the first is preternatural voice Julia Holter, at the historic Janskerk. Commencing with her pained cover of Karen Dalton’s My Love, My Love, dedicated to those killed in Paris, the set that follows is rich and hypnotic. Accompanied by two string players and minimal drums, songs drawn mainly from the just-out Have You In My Wilderness oscillate between orchestral art-enigma and, as with the penultimate Feel You, sublime pop.

A short walk and a few dodged cyclists later, the glass and steel multi-venue arts space that is TivoliVredenburg looms into view. After getting accustomed to its maze-like succession of bar areas and escalators, descending to Faust in the ground floor Grote Zaal is like stepping back in time. Still raging against the dying of the light, the kosmische stagers spin the dial between classical guitar, hurdy-gurdy workouts, dadaesque theatre and more familiar, repetitive krautrock. They don’t have any heavy machinery onstage this time, but they are accompanied by three women, who sit knitting like Greek Moirae. Are we watching them, or Faust? Hard to say, but the driving version of Mamie Is Blue off So Far gets heads nodding, especially when Jean-Hervé Péron declares, “we are not here!”

The following night, The Besnard Lakes are definitely present. They come out grooving at the TivoliVredenburg’s Ronda venue, playing psych-symphonic rock for heads. With Jace Lasek Art Garfunkel’ing it up in the higher registers, recent b-side The Motorway surges like a more loaded War On Drugs. Why aren’t they bigger?

Knitting to Faust. Picture by Erik Luyten.

Over at the Cultureel Centrum Moira, Philadelphia’s Hop Along are nothing if not bracing. Formerly freak folkers, their drilled indie rock is dominated by the extraordinary, piercing voice of singer Frances Quinlan. Are they drinking whiskey throughout, wonders MOJO? There’s further sensory derangement later, up in the TivoliVredenburg’s top floor Pandora venue, where stroboscopic NY noisemongers A Place To Bury Strangers play so loud your sternum vibrates and it feels like a seizure is approaching. Taxi!

Mellowness reigns at the Dutch band fest that is The Mini-Who?, however, which takes over various bars and arts spaces on Saturday. Impressing all-comers at the Café Tilt! are classic-indie artisans Naïve Set and rhapsodic dream-rock freaks Silver Ferns, while over at the Kapitaal bar three-piece Venus Tropicaux bash out a bracing Ramones/ Shaggs hybrid. They’re currently working on a six-track seven-inch, we learn.

Dawn Penn’s playing across town, but can you not go and see Magma? Playing by personal invitation of Sunn O))), Christian Vander’s space cult/ jazz-rock singularity are frankly searing: playing vintage bangers Köhntarkösz and Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, sung by three vocalists in the invented alien language of Kobaïan (obviously), it recalls a heavy prog mass with added Star Trek vocalese. When Vander closes with a torrent of scat singing, the mad theatricality is complete.

Sunn O))).

How to follow that? It’s at such moments that the splendour and variety of LGW? becomes most apparent. Want to see Benin’s perpetual-motion veteran afro-soul review the T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou? Not a problem. How about Sunn O))), wreathed in black robes and thick dry ice, tuning into antediluvian channels of molten noise? Certainly, though the officially recommended earbuds do take the upper frequencies away. And then there’s sax warrior of the moment, Kamasi Washington (pictured, top), whose future-retro crash of jazz, funk and hip-hop includes his dad on flute and an epic battle between his two drummers.

Proceed with Adrian Sherwood’s explosive live dub mix of Chicago post rockers Disappears, and then the absurdist hyperspace thrills of Lightning Bolt, and MOJO must ponder – is this the best day of music we have enjoyed, ever?

Sunday commences in the agreeable darkness of the Tivoli Vredenburg’s two level space The Pit, where local studio Sonar Traffic are hosting an all-modular synth binge of analogue drift music and experimentation. Meanwhile, over at the Ekko – a venue with a groovy retro sitting room attached - San Fran’s waggish pop-maestro Kelley Stoltz warns he’s going to cut his usual comedic badinage to fit more tunes in, and he does: Are You My Love and newie Litter Love show his creativity continues to blaze, but why didn’t he play global hit-in-waiting Wobbly from the new In Triangle Time?

As such things tend to, the home straight whips by with dismaying haste. Back at the Vredenburg, Floydesque psych outs from Jacco Gardner and Ariel Pink’s attempts-to-annoy-everyone-plus-song-grandeur are followed by the absorbing deep jazz explorations of ex-Head Hunters/ Bitches Brew reed player Bennie Maupin.

Annette Peacock. Picture by Erik Luyten.

The final headliner at the Grote Zaal is Annette Peacock, sequestered purveyor of ultra-rarified piano and electronic minimalism, who delivers lyrical enigma with jazz phrasing. It ends ten minutes early, but if any performance this year manages to suspend time, it’s this one.

Not daring to believe that normal life is only hours away, the last drops of enjoyment are squeezed out of a Numero Group DJ set in the Pandora hall. Covetable R&B and funk obscurios are augmented with mesmerizing visuals from 1982’s soul TV show The Chicago Party. These include contortionism, karate and buffets, as well as grinning dancefloors galore. It’s as good a series of images to take away as any; how long is it ‘til November 2016?

For more visit www.leguesswho.nl.