Le Guess Who festival Utrecht 24-28/11/10

It’s freezing and your reporter has got the mother & father of colds. Still it would be a cruel folly not to attend Utrecht’s Le Guess Who? Festival, which, like Incubate in Tilburg, is a resounding two fingers to the Randstad in terms of atmosphere (no pretentious nobbers just people who like music), price and well… just all-round lack of hassle. The only thing that could be considered a downside is the dispersed nature of venue  locations of all the venues, (despite their uniform excellence).  Those who know Utrecht will attest to the fact that walking from de Helling to the Ekko can feel a tidy step, especially in sub-zero temperatures.

Incendiary ‘s first chance to get to the festival was on the Friday, and with the promise of the Voice of the Seven Thunders,  Ganglians and Sleepy Sun on the bill at de Helling  we chose to decamp to there.  Despite it being located on the outskirts, and behind what looks like a mini retail park I’ve long thought that de Helling is a great night out. It’s friendly with good beer and has possibly the best sound of any venue in Holland. Standing behind the mix desk watching bands, with a nice full glass (no ridiculous head) and being treated courteously by staff did little to dent any illusions.

First up in front of a small crowd was Voice of the Seven Thunders. The Voice are an act that draw on spiky, trippy folk-tinged grooves not a million miles away from Amon Duul 2’s imperial phase: Phallus Dei and  Yeti especially. Unprepossessing in terms of stage presence they may be, but there’s a quiet and steely determination to cut away any bullshit. This is probably down to a total confidence in their own musicianship and its inherent power to please a crowd: as there’s no doubt thy can play a bit. The band were adept at creating an enveloping sound that keeps the listener suspended in a shimmering web of guitar runs and patterns. And they were happy to mess about with their songs: the folksy and incredibly beautiful Disappearances was unrecognisable, starting as a solo then building up into an almighty racket courtesy of some extended jams that ended in howling feedback and fuzz.  Best was saved till last: with a jam that could have filled the whole side of any record, a veritable arsenal of tribal thumping from the drummer was hitched to walls of strident, cacophonous noise. Triumphant stuff.

Next were Ganglians, an act whose record Monster Head Room Incendiary likes a lot, but whose gig was not a true indication of their powers. Reasons? Well, to put it bluntly, they didn’t really put on a show, though it has to be said they had a hard time making some of their (apparently brand new/ hired) equipment work. And they knew it; singer Ryan Grubbs’ quip “we must seem like problem children to you” was witty and very apposite, if hardly a panacea for the non-event of the show. We also heard that they were the victims of a tour itinerary of Spinal Tap proportions: to perform at Le Guess Who they’d flown in from Madrid, a city they’d only arrived in a day after playing two back to back dates in Germany.  And after this performance they were flying back to Barcelona. They need to have a word with their booker…

Maybe this is why they seemed so hare-brained on stage, nothing really clicked apart from one or two tracks (most notably Blood on the Sand) when Grubbs stopped standing behind his keyboard-cum-box of electronic tricks and strapped on a guitar. Then we got a glimpse - albeit short - of how powerful and visceral they can sound, and how good their dreamy Wilson-eque pop can be when harnessed to something even more uplifting. So, a big shame, but we’ll just about let them off.

The hall filled up for Sleepy Sun; their often monumental, sometimes portentous LP Fever has certainly been a talking point in Holland, and we thought they rocked out at Haldern (if not being totally my thing). Since the summer the girl singer Rachel Fannan has gone, and somehow I feel they’ve lost something because of this, probably a bit of charm. Now the band leave the vocals to the very capable Bret Constantino, though on this showing (spending a lot of his non-singing time indulging in vaguely pompous conductor gestures that were nothing short of daft and very unnecessary), you got the feeling that he suddenly saw himself as ever so slightly more important than the band, a slippery slope if ever there was one…  The gig was all a bit worthy and somewhat diffuse, there didn’t seem to be the necessary focus or moments of gear change that could enervate an audience. And my old post-punk soul just hated the band encouraging the audience to do a bit of communal hand clapping. There’s no doubt that Fannan added an elfin, cheeky touch to a sound that could quickly become blustery and gaseous.

A quick run to the Tivoli Oudegracht meant we caught some of Beach House. They’re still hiding behind oceans of smoke and still being sweet and complementary, and still playing their very beautiful songs in a way that will complement your new sofa. Further than that, we couldn’t remember any of it. Oh, and whatever the provenance of the pyramid structures onstage is, it’s one that surely has had its moment. Unless it’s some sort of visual lead into the way the band sees itself as a unit on a stage. And in that case it should act as a perennial warning to them. I have to say that sometimes great songs and wonderful musicianship aren’t everything. I need bands could tackle steak & chips, a fight, a bit of blood and thunder, a bit of character…
After that it was back to the Lemsip & hot water bottles for this grumpy flu sufferer.

Day two began with something a little different. Forsaking the normal run of gigs we went to watch Rob Young play in the very pleasant (though slightly frou-frou) Theater de Kikker, only to find out that the gig was cancelled. Instead the great Alasdair Roberts and Alex Neilson, the drummer from and leader of Trembling Bells stepped into the breach to interview each other, which was pleasantly diverting in an old fashioned, self-effacing way. Then we had a set from Trembling Bells who proceeded to blow their Gentle Audience away with a committed and theatrical gig, full of romantic sweeps and flourishes. The good thing about this lot seems to be their determination to explore absolutely anything they can use – musical or other - without any kind of self-doubt, and their readiness to filter all these ideas and influences through their own worldview. Of course you could pick out the obvious British folk rock–isms if you wanted, but there was a lot more going on, we got post-rock style burn-outs as well as passages that were pure Gong. It certainly helps that singer Lavinia Blackwall can’t half belt out some tune – and hold it: indeed, the band’s name could be an apt description of her voice… The last track was a classic wig out, and deserving of the generous applause: possibly the festival highlight for this magazine.

Then a lung-shredding run to watch Saroos, who were playing in Incendiary’s other favourite venue, Ekko. Saroos’s music is a very enjoyable, if slightly off-kilter take on synth-pop. And their new LP is a charming mix of Cluster-esque squiggles and those druggy, nagging beats that any German band can conjure up at will: classic German electronic music in other words.  In a hot packed Ekko we witnessed the band run through of most of the new LP, See Me Not, with considerable aplomb and not a little soul. It also helped matters that Max Punktezahl played his bass in a moody, trippy New Wave kinda way: it looked like he’d been studying videos of the Pop Group or the Teardrop Explodes. The set really clicked when a few layers of sound were stripped away, allowing that nagging, dubby rhythm to break through and grab the audience. I think this more minimalist approach allowed the space that would have been created by the inclusion of a drummer to be infiltrated by the underlying rhythms of the music. That might not sound like the best sense to read, but I’d say that they sounded far more expansive than the moments when they used sounds and samples in a more assertive manner. (Incidentally this was Saroos’ first drummerless gig since Christoph Brandner had to drop out, so we’ll doubtless see developments of some sort in their live approach over the coming months…)  In any case Fog People was bloody brilliant as was Yukoma. So, in conclusion, a very satisfying if slightly self-contained set.

A combination of rescheduled train times and a ratcheting up of the illness factor meant we couldn’t stay to watch Baths (big shame) or indeed make the Sunday line up (a calamity given Low Dens, Wooden Shijps and Marnie Stern’s performances), but make no mistake this was one hell of a festival, it’s just a shame we couldn’t participate in more of it.