Faust, Osees And Sons Of Kemet Triumph At Le Guess Who? 2021

But what do you do when a lockdown is declared halfway through a festival? Mojo finds out, and listens to cosmic bar bands, Moog ragas and Egyptian exorcism music.

Celebrate Change

by Ian Harrison |

IN THE CONCERT SPACES OF UTRECHT on Sunday November 14, signs can be seen saying ‘Celebrate Change’. It’s an admirable way to spin potential catastrophe. A four-day, multi-venue gathering of bespoke independent and global sounds and culture held since 2007, Le Guess Who? has been hit by a national COVID lockdown just two nights into its run. After two years without music festivals, it seems like a particularly cruel joke.

It had all begun so well, with a bulging bill promising OSEES, a live performance of Faust IV, Sons Of Kemet among many other mystery flavours for the peripatetic musical epicure. Thursday started strong with new-old R&B outfit Gabriels in the Ronda room at the city’s Tivoli Vredenburg venue-complex: in a gold dressing gown, singer Jacob Lusk is masterful, switching between spooky abstractions in vintage jazz balladry to a gospel soul maximalism. Then it’s over to the Janskerk, where Arushi Jain’s modular synth dream-time ragas get the ancient stones resonating. Back at the Ronda there’s furious intensity from Irreversible Entanglements, whose free jazz Afrofuturist liberation sounds come with fierce declamations from LGW? regular Moor Mother and allusions to the unseen world of quantum physics.

Gabriels' Jacob Lusk at the Ronda. ©Ben Houdijk

Whether to act like a quantum wave, or particle, or both? Tokyo minimalist master Midori Takada is one of this year’s curators, and may have a message for us. Her new “durational sound work” entitled [THUS TIME GOES BY] is installed at the Jacobikerk and features keyboard and marimba meditations with accompanying light manipulations beamed onto an antique brass chandelier.

The day doesn’t get any less curious, and reveals the random, world-connecting gloriousness of the LGW? model: Bosnian-Swiss accordionist Mario Batkovic carves dynamic old-world weirdness out of the air at the Stadsschouwburg concert hall, while back at the Jacobikerk, Egyptian voice and percussion ensemble Mahazer play the chanted, polyrhythmic music called Zãr, a usually women-only affair to banish demons. With evil spirits bracingly vanquished, we head to the Vredenburg’s Grote Zaal where the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Radio Choir play Alexander Scriabin’s mystic work from 1910, Prométhée, Le Poème Du Feu. As its monster climax approaches, Prometheus’ myth of forbidden wisdom and thunderbolt punishment from above reminds us of the press conference the Dutch government held earlier in the evening, when they announced that a lockdown was imminent.

Mahazer's Om Sameh at the Jacobikerk. ©Tim van Veen

The huge and world-renowned Mega Record And CD Fair is meant to open in Utrecht on Saturday: instead the venue cancels the event before a single Near Mint collectible LP can be bought. By contrast, the organisers of Le Guess Who? refuse to buckle, read the small print, and make herculean adjustments, editing Saturday’s programme to run until 6.30pm.

Knowing that the end is coming soon does add a certain frisson. Selected by OSEES chief John Dwyer, California’s Earth Girl Helen Brown Center For Planetary Intelligence Band bring big beats, sax and wild Fender twanging from guitarist Doug Hilsinger to lunchtime at the LE:EN venue: a cosmic bar band with a magnetic frontwoman, they’re perfect for revellers who need to get their freak on earlier than normal. Then, over at the Jacobskerk, LGW?s ability to programme remarkable music you never knew you wanted continues with a hypnotic performance by Circassian folk experimenters Jrpjej and singer Zaur Nagoy. Presented by the Ored Recordings label, their traditional instrumentation and ancient songs of dogs meeting boars, invasion, and courting make the performance as elemental and haunting as a meeting of Popol Vuh and Morricone.

Zaur Nagoy
Zaur Nagoy and (right) Jrpjej singer Daiana Kulova at Jacobkerk. ©Maarten Mooijma

Back in the modern world at the Vredenburg’s Pandora hall, L.A. producer/ rapper Pink Siifu and band combine thunderous jazz, yacht rock trumpet jams and Bad Brains punk, complete with moshing and a spiritual middle finger to the forces of reaction. Everyone is turfed out afterwards with only cinemas and theatres left open, but Mojo hears about a secret gig at the bold and forward-thinking WORM venue in Rotterdam, where Estonian folk-electronica ace Maarja Nuut arranges laptop synthetics, looped voice, and field recordings to mesmeric effect.

On Sunday, a heightened appreciation for all amplified music is in evidence in the now-seated crowds, as when DJ Hairy Krishna plays African reggae in the Ronda before John Dwyer’s Bent Arcana come on. With TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone on modular synth, the group’s vortex of improv-fusion with krautrock leanings makes it an excellent entree to Jean-Hervé Péron’s faUSt playing his former group’s 1973 album Faust IV. Rearranged and played out of order, the performance is as joyous and strange as the original band, to whom Péron offers fulsome tribute from the stage.

Faust's Jean-Herve Peron at the Ronda. ©Jelmer de Haas

Yet the clock of doom is ticking. Down in the Grote Zaal, rediscovered neo-soul voice Eddie Chacon (he had a hit in 1992 with Charles and Eddie’s Would I Lie To You) and keyboardist/ producer John Carroll Kirby are joined by two woodwind players to play songs from the cathartic 2020 LP Pleasure, Joy And Happiness, and it’s electric. After some last blasts of jazz energy from LGW? faves Sons Of Kemet, we finish up at the Pandora with veteran Belgian cults Aksak Maboul, whose Pulp-like art rock is accompanied by singer Veronique’s live drawings projected onto a screen.

Eddie Chacon
Eddie Chacon ©Ben Houdijk

The fun’s over by nine, but as we file out into the night it’s hard not to conclude that after so long starved of music in such diverse and open-minded profusion, the return of Le Guess Who? was still a massive success, and more special because of the unique conditions. The wish to get back to long, unrestricted nights of concert-going is understandable, but for now, think yourself accursed you were not here. 2021 took on Le Guess Who?, and Le Guess Who? won.

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