Even amidst a crisis within the live music circuit, Le Guess Who? 2022 hauled over another expectation-defying lineup to the city of Utrecht. Beats Per Minute strolled around town in a disposed daze, dodging cyclists, embarking on another sonic voyage across the corners of the globe. And, to quote that famous Ween song, it was indeed a real trip.
TivoliVredenburg’s Grote Zaal usually is a venue where some of Le Guess Who?’s more rousing performances take place. In 2019, I witnessed one of the greatest vocalists ever, Fatoumata Diawara, sweep the audiences off their feet, swerving across the length of the stage like a human-shaped strand of vapors. When Junun played this space in 2016 with Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express, you could literally feel the venue’s pinewood foundations shake along the cadence of the orchestra’s robust raga grooves
Yet when Noureddine “Noori” Jaber and his Dorpa Band kicked off this year’s edition, one couldn’t help but tiptoe around in the dark and watch breathlessly. The notion that musical uprising has to be boisterous is quickly debunked by this Sudanese ensemble, who uphold the nomadic Beja tribe’s foundations through their palliative blues movements. Noori wields his self-made tambo guitar with a warm glint in his eye, often giving his fellow players a knowing look when they hit that aural sweet spot. All the musicians stand in a modest half-circle, more concerned with coalescing with each other than projecting something outwardly to the onlookers. There’s a soft, benevolent deliberation in the way Dorpa Band play; you find yourself utterly entranced by their labyrinthine guitar and sax deviations.
And to think that this newfangled strand of African folk was sparked by Noori finding a discarded guitar somewhere in the trash. Furthermore, Congolese art collective Fulu Miziki Kolektiv takes that ideology to another echelon, crafting original percussion instruments from everyday objects. The Pandora stage is stuffed PVC pipes, plastic containers, scrap metal, cutlery and even a hanging chain; but instead of a yard sale we bear witness to a dystopian version of African folk that has to be heard to be believed. Amazingly, even during the soundcheck – before the band donned their impeccably adorned Road Warrior-styled getups – the crowd was already on its feet, frolicking around. When the actual gig got into full swing, Fulu Miziki Kolektiv had everyone eating out of the palm of their hand, in a set which was in essence one big continuous frenzied groove. An early highlight.
On day one, Le Guess Who? 2022 offered as much contemplation as elation. Divide and Dissolve’s set at the Ronda was especially moving in the wake of Mimi Parker’s passing; the burgeoning Australian outfit opened for Low (who were set to perform at this edition as well) during their final shows. The band’s brilliant debut Gas Lit is a battering ram type of drone rock album, a tidal assault of indigenous reclamation. But tonight, the heaviness of Divide and Dissolve is one of grief, as Takiaya Reed wields her guitar in the spirit of Low’s torrential versions of “Do You Know How To Waltz”, leaning fully into improvisation and impulse. Divide and Dissolve’s set felt like one long emotional exorcism, striking the audience with torrents pure primal feeling by unseen forces from the beyond. This show was proof that dirgeful guitar noise can unburden as a gesture of affection as much as pure rage.
On Friday, Japanese hip-hop crew Dos Monos raised the roof at Ekko, mixing Funkadelic-laced electro-grooves with streetwise mischief making. Their music is somewhat reminiscent of those genre-blending crossover acts that went rampant during the indie revival, namely Asian Dub Foundation, Gorillaz and French outfit Le Peuple De L’Herbe, but with a contemporary, jubilant flair. Alternately Slovenian folk ensemble Širom’s set at Cloud 9 offered an eyebrow-raising mixture of hypnotism and skylarking; their music sounds like something approximate of Terry Riley or Kronos Quartet conducting The Incredible String Band. They played a total of two (very long) tracks, and though they use exclusively organic folk instruments – if you closed your eyes – their combined synthesis sounds like electronic new age music. But just as you’re mesmerised in their minimal/folk spells, one of the band members starts tossing around lentils (!) with mad thrusts, adding a startling physicality that catches several bystanders off guard. Indeed, with their combined acousmatic wizardry, Širom are the type of band that probably should end up in Björk’s rolodex someday.
Though Le Guess Who? programmed plenty of marquee names within hip-hop’s outer fringes (billy woods, Injury Reserve and Zebra Katz, for example) festival co-curator clipping. provided the definitive highlight with equal menace and mass appeal. Their sound is unlike anything in music; the cutting-edge productions of William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes sound like some alien virus that has infiltrated earth. And like that shapeshifting bounty hunter from Critters, it decided hip-hop would be the most potent vessel to cause havoc. Clutching the mic with poised purpose, Daveed Diggs delivers his lyrical flow as if discharging pointed pillars of solid crystal at the audience with scary precision, not even missing a single syllable in what was one of the more hard-hitting performances of the weekend. An absolute slam dunk show from the outset.
Lucrecia Dalt did a frightful, experimental set last year at the Pandora; on the Saturday at Ronda, she puts more emphasis on the song-driven approach of her acclaimed new album ¡Ay!. Just don’t think Dalt will divide up this performance in neat little chunks of applause. The composer and songwriter occupies the stage with percussionist Alex Lázaro – who has configured his set in delightfully cartoonish fashion; one of his toms towers above with a light inside, giving the illusion of a celestial body hovering over the duo. Dalt meanders through the tunes as if they’re sentient beings to interact with, whose form only she can see. Fermenting folk movements from native Colombia – such as cumbia and bolero – into her spectral art pop stylings, Dalt conjures a version of a lost Morricone score – or The Residents at their most oblique – that feels highly personal, and strangely heart-warming.
Le Guess Who? always has a knack for putting on experimental music that feels achingly human and urgent; admittedly, it’s always a nice change of pace to hear some unfettered pop bangers. Belgian duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul have those in spades; international breakthrough Topical Dancer is an all-killer no-filler tour de force of rib-tickling, progressive thinking club anthems. Their appearance at Le Guess Who? resonates like your typical victory lap performance; the sheer gusto of the songs was enough to whip the packed Ronda crowd into a full-blown romp. That nifty transition between the hysterical “HAHA” and the diaristic “It Hit Me” never fails to thrill. Adigéry and Pupul have revved up the production values of their show significantly, adding the sought-after light installations of Nick Verstand for even more flash. Though Adigéry’s voice was on the verge of giving out near the end of the show, the mission was clear from the get-go; our bodies knew what to do.
Deeper into the night, this particular mission became more and more of a challenge, however, especially with the more radical-minded DJs lined up in gritty club spaces like BASIS and WAS. In the former, Jana Rush spearheads her futuristic footwork productions with a pop immediacy in similarly satisfying fashion as Loraine James or Jlin. Bristol stalwart Batu meanwhile, made the WAS spin around its own axis with a breakneck bricolage of dance styles, too swift and shrewd for the ears to fully process. All one could muster in the murky warehouse space – with smoke so thick you couldn’t even spot the person behind the booth’s silhouette – was a gleeful smile of sheer disbelief.
Every edition of Le Guess Who? has that artist that blindsides you in this very intrusive way, leaving you confused in the most positive sense of that word. I will never forget Yves Tumor haunting a pitch black Ekko like some vengeful ghost, in the days before they uprooted their own mutant strand of mainstream pop. Slauson Malone – real name Jasper Marsalis – performs at a similar time slot on Sunday at the Ekko as well; and though his performance has a decisively different (read: less abrasive) allure, it was arguably just as impactful. Alongside him sits cellist Nicky Wetherell providing industrial, pixelated soundscapes that often don’t sound even remotely like a cello, and more like a radio signal crying in agony.
This is a performance that clearly followed the Dean Blunt school of diffusing the notion of a musical performance itself: there are moments where the duo seems to be tuning their instruments instead of actually playing them. Out of nowhere, Marsalis would break out a saccharine R&B lick on acoustic guitar, only to snarl over it with death metal intensity, shell shocking the bejesus out of the listeners. He would leave the stage at strange moments, prompting whispers on whether the set was actually over, only to return and finish the rest as the venue started to empty out. To be fair, it’s easy to dismiss a performance like this as pretentious, but you can’t deny the outré methods Marsalis employs to leave the Ekko completely perplexed and unsure of how to react. Not one soul was checking their phone, everyone was alert and under the spell of the moment, wondering what the heck Marsalis and Wetherell would do next.
Bewildering in a whole other way was French hurdy-gurdy liege lord Valentín Clastrier in the Hertz. Now, if I was to predict the most rock ’n’ roll performance of Le Guess Who? an easy pick would be psych noise juggernaut GNOD or post-punk reformers Rats on Rafts. But no; it was this old guy operating a hurdy gurdy, somehow making one instrument sound like Deep Purple, Stravinksy and Kraftwerk in the span of a single composition. What in the name of Donovan is going on here? Whatever this man is doing with the hurdy-gurdy, it appears similarly arcane to what someone like Mario Batkovic conjures with the accordion: conducting entire centuries of music within a single, somewhat archaic instrument. Just incredible.
After four days of non-stop sonic innovation and celebration of sound, tapping out with the Ark of The Covenant-dub of The Bug – flanked by the always stable trinity of Flowdan, Dis Fig, and Logan – is a safe bet to be definitively grinded to dust. As “Skeng” shook violently through my innards, one nagging thought did occur to me: Le Guess Who? has been in a very healthy stasis these past seven, eight years, actively advocating themselves as a more adventurous alternative to the homogeneity that plagues so many other festival lineups. It increasingly feels like a lonely vocation; if there were more festivals that went that extra mile to program artists that aren’t exclusively from bigger Anglocentric markets, maybe Le Guess Who? could accelerate its mission quicker without having to rely on the bigger indie names.
That being said, as I’m typing this, the festival has already sold out the bulk of early bird tickets, which clearly shows its audience trusts Le Guess Who?’s artistic trajectory enough to continue ushering them into the unknown. That sounds like an exhilarating luxury few other festivals these days can afford. As this year again has proven, there’s nothing more thrilling than having your expectations shattered to bits for four days. Long live the question mark.