The Netherlands: they don’t call it the Lowlands for no reason. As the Intercity train hurtles from Rotterdam towards our destination, outside our window, ribbons of water dissect the fields, creating small islands of green where cows and sheep are stranded grazing. But this weekend isn’t some rural retreat. We’re heading for Utrecht, home for the 12th year running to Le Guess Who? Festival, a self-described "city celebration of global sounds."
This year’s lineup had a helping hand to crack this brief, with stages curated by "slaveship punk" promoter Moor Mother, who brings us a special collaboration between Saul Williams and King Britt, plus New Age and folk-jazz explorer Beverly Glenn-Copeland; and director Asia Argento, who issued invites to alt-rock icons The Breeders, Lydia Lunch’s Big Sexy Noise, and the cinematic Americana musician Vera Sola. (In August, Argento withdrew from the festival following an accusation of sexual assault.)
Taking place across 20 different venues and with a long list of "must-sees," the medieval city featured genre-defying sounds. Here are some of our favorite performances from the weekend.
The first night of the festival kicks off with Drinks at the TivoliVredenburg venue Pandora. Nope, not that kind. This is the project of Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon and White Fence's Tim Presley. Their sound is very Raincoats in all its repetitive refrains and varying vocal tones. But there’s also skronking guitars and discordant riffs that conjures up similarly turbulent bunch Duds, which is wholeheartedly welcome.
Tunisian songwriter and producer Emel Mathlouthi slowly ascends to the Cloud Nine stage against a backdrop of glugging synths. She moves, a mere shadow through the darkened stage, and by the time she reaches the mic stand, you think it would be lights up, but no. Her vocals resonate through the crowd as she tackles a Jeff Buckley cover—a bold opener, but with a voice that has an almost operatic grandeur about it, she’s the woman to take it on. Pulsating synths hemorrhage into the next song as she introduces a song for the children of Yemen called "Kaddesh," which means "how many." It’s this kind of hard-hitting commentary that carves an important space for Mathlouthi in this fraught landscape. Her songs capture the hopes and fears forged through years of repression, injustice, and economic hardship.
From revolution to reprieves, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Vera Sola brings her spellbinding storytelling to the three-tiered concert hall, Hertz. An upright bass, scant drum kit, and full-bodied guitar lay waiting as the band makes their way onto the stage. It quickly becomes apparent within her country-tinged Americana that Sola is a proper raconteur, painting a picture of humdrum suburbia, jilted lovers, and countrymen that capture real stories. She talks about how she based one one song, "Honey," on a true story about a woman she met in Mississippi (unsurprisingly, she was called Honey). Though Sola peforms with her band members this evening, it’s interesting to note that she crafted the whole of the new record on her own—she even admits to learning a few new instruments to pull it off. But the whole trio is skilled when it comes to clever handiwork, whether that’s intricate finger plucking, cross-hand jazz snare skills, or slap bass. With her first record hitting shelves this month, Sola jokes, “It’s been a faith-based economy with my fans": up until now, she has only released a Misfits cover EP. It only makes her more endearing to think of her Cramps vibrato vocal line and shoop-shoop swagger rocking out to "Skulls" in her room.
You can already tell from the smacks of the snare as the band tries to get the levels for the guitars right (i.e., louder than that kick) that this is going to be a loud one. Flanked onstage by a two-pronged powerhouse of the '80s, Brit band Gallon Drunk, Lydia Lunch charges onto stage with a glass of white. This is a woman who made a name for herself in the no-wave scene of New York and has since crafted an impressive back-catalog of provocative and confrontational noise music. Tonight is no exception. As soon as noughties number "Trick Baby" rounds off its Death From Above scuzz guitar tones, Lunch is barking at the soundman that he’s going to have to work with her on the soundcheck—less treble, more mid, more bass, emphasising this last one with a guttural roar through the mic.
But you know what? She’s nailed this, as the rest of the set, the lyrics cut through, and so do her on-stage put-downs. As she edges towards standout number, "Your Rent Don’t Pay My Rent," Lunch calls out to the ladies, "This one’s for you." The rest of the track is punctuated with moments of outrage as she prowls the stage, snarling and snapping at anyone who dares make eye contact in the crowd: “You with the T Rex curls. I hope you go home and shave your face." The theatrics continue as she flips the bird mid-set to unsuspecting audience members. The soundman gets a fair hit of it, too: “Bring the lights down a bit, moody blue and red, not white." In the sixty minutes she’s with us, Lunch is volatile, rude, and outspoken. And it’s a total joy to watch. As she takes a moment out to brush her hair, re-apply her lipstick, and dab some perfume on—throat and yeah, downstairs for good measure—she asks, “Do you know anything about Southern boogie? You’re about to get a lesson." She bows out with a rousing rendition of "The Gospel Singer." We’re all converted.
ROBOTS MAKE MUSIC
The Speelklok Museum is like no other museum I’ve been to before. Boasting an extensive collection of automatically playing instruments, Speelklok is home to some pretty progressive tech when it comes to making music. Featuring musical clocks, barrel organs, and carillons, the collection is a charming journey through the ages, but it’s the future thinking where it starts to get really exciting. The current exhibition, "Robots Make Music," showcases an impressive slew of worldly "robots" that have developed the ability to mimic human movements, compose, and even improvise music, just as we can. Most remarkable of all of them is hypermodern and sympathetic US-built robot called Shimon, who listens like a human but plays like a machine. We see him performing alongside exhibitor Zac Whittaker as they play off one another’s riffing like they're jamming at a mate’s house. Sure, he can play, but what are a robot's thoughts on the future of feminism?
NYC artist and feminist Kembra Pfahler has come to this year’s Le Guess Who? Festival to discuss just that, alongside DJ and dance artist Johanna Constantine. Back in 2014, together with English-born singer, composer, and visual artist Anohni (formerly of the band Antony and the Johnsons, and not present at today’s performance), the trio conceived Future Feminism: originally an exhibition-cum-performance series bringing together 13 tenets, ending in possibly their most widely-known tenet, "The Future is Female." In their talk, they bring Future Feminism to life in two sections: the first, a dance piece that finds Constantine emerging from a black net shroud, her body clad in metal and bloodied scars. The second piece is led by Pfahler. She’s joined by fellow The Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black band member Christian Music, both tottering under the weight of full black beehive wigs for a few hearty punk renditions from Pfahler’s back catalogue. The performance ends with them coming together on stage and taking the audience through the 13 tenets of Future Feminism, with a blown-up PDF of them thrown onto the screen for good measure. Pfahler sort of sings us through them against a ropey '80s romp track with off-the-cuff asides about hippie colonies of California, Planet of the Apes, and being the “Switzerland of feminism." Yes, it really was as mad as all of that.
Earlier this year, Kim Deal quite literally got the band back together for a Breeders reunion record, All Nerve—the first release from the original '90s lineup, featuring Kelley Deal (guitarist and co-vocalist), Josephine Wiggs (bass), and Jim MacPherson (drums). Unsurprisingly, then, their set at Tivoli's rock venue Ronda is peppered with numbers from 1994 release, Last Splash. Sunshine ballad "Saints" kicks off proceedings, while "Divine Hammer" and indie club staple "Cannonball" sets off the pit in the front rows. There’s a nod to breakthrough Pod with its signature stop-and-start guitar refrains in "When I Was A Painter," and even a hat tip to lesser-spotted Title TK for a rousing rendition of "Driving on 9," complete with Kelley having a crack at the violin solo with her mouth after Kim shares, “Carrie Bradley is normally the violin player for this song, but she’s back in upstate New York, so Kelley’s going to sing the violin solo."
But alongside the fond flashbacks, there is more than enough room for the new stuff. The fact that these tracks can stand up against their twenty-something-siblings is testament to The Breeders' longstanding knack for writing stone-cold indie hits. All Nerve opener "Nervous Mary" sidles in with that classic Breeders build. "MegaGoth" mixes things up, with Josephine landing lead vocals and Kim’s Les Paul. It's a prime opportunity for the Deal sisters to kick into some of the bass back catalogue as they plough into a "Gigantic" Pixies closer. You can’t help but leave on a wave of big, big love for that.
Easing us into the early hours, sissy bounce star Katey Red struts onto the Cloud Nine stage in a sweeping all-black ensemble and just her iPhone in hand. Unfortunate really, as what the rapper could really use is an on-stage DJ, or at least some sort of cross-fade as her initial tracks chop and change at a flick of her manicured nails. Enter her trio of dancers for the night, who confirm that the go-to sissy bounce dance is the twerk, and in a big way. So much so that a handful of unsuspecting “volunteers” from the crowd are lured on stage to give it ago. It’s fair to say there is a lot of grinding. But the beats are there in giant banger "Where Da Melph At?" and in "Punk Under Pressure's" schoolyard call-and-response over that dancefloor Jacksons sample. We leave with the collective cry of “do what Katey do if you want to be in Katey’s crew” ringing in our ears.
There’s been a lot of industry hype around Russian artist Kate Shilonosova—probably best known as the lead singer and founder of post-punk garage band Glintshake. In 2016, she released her debut solo effort Binasu, her first under the moniker Kate NV. The album took a decidedly more avant-garde turn, with pop hooks and disco vocals. But sadly, at her set in the celestial setting of Janskerk, there’s neither the riotous rock clash of her indie roots, or any kind of hook or even vocal line to latch onto. Instead, things get very experimental. One song begins by pouring water into a wine glass to quite literally whet her whistle...as she holds a small bird-shaped one, which sounds over long, extended piano chords like a summer morning just getting started. A flutist joins her on stage for a few numbers to add to the whimsy, and it comes off sounding a little like a jaunty soundtrack to a Studio Ghibli film. For someone who's made a name for herself as a frontwoman, NV strikes a more bashful pose tonight. With no foreseeable end to those sprawling soundscapes, she sheepishly looks across to the flutist to bow out.
Of course, festivals are the perfect setting for mud-braving, stranger-hugging moments, but Le Guess Who? offers up something a bit more classy when it comes to defining takeaways. The full performance from renowned sitar player Anoushka Shankar is truly something special to witness. Away from the distortion and the tepid beers in a field, the 27-member string section of the Metropole Orkest is set up in the cavernous grand hall of Tivoli. The set is marked out in two distinct parts: Austrian Hang-player and Björk collaborator Manu Delago joins us first for three compositions, and Shankar joins us for the latter half of the performance. It’s an artful divide that allows Delago to dazzle, twisting and turning the Hang to tease out the sounds with a little air vacuum from his hand, on the back of the body of the drum. The robots were good, but this is something else. It’s at this point we welcome on musical virtuoso, Shankar, to the stage. The strings become more erratic, climbing around her fret-flying fingerwork. The pace changes, with sinister strings spiralling to a high pitch like a firework being set off into the night’s sky. We are wooed with copious come-to-close moments, only to pick up for another ascent as the playoff between strings and sitar builds to a collective crescendo.
In the wake of her fifth album in 30 years, Broken Politics, dropping just last month, transcendental pop icon Neneh Cherry's Tivoli set is a chance to explore the record in a live capacity. “It’s nice to share this music with you finally. I’ve had it in my pocket for a while," she confesses. “It’s mostly written by me and him up there [she gesticulates to longtime collaborator Cameron McVey] and Kieran Hebden, also known as Four Tet." "Shotgun Shack" is a poignant look at war zones, and the dubby "Kong"—a collaboration with Massive Attack’s 3D, an old friend from her Bristol days—takes on the refugee crisis. As the album details out the sad fight against the extinction of free thought, Broken Politics shows Cherry’s persistance for pushing boundaries and messaging that has been ringing globally for over three decades now. But she’s not looking to shirk the past. In fact, she says, sometimes, “it is good to reflect and tip the hat to time." She does just this as she indulges in Raw Like Sushi’s "Manchild," a fitting nod to what has now become her signature discordant chord coupling. The politics of it all might be broken, but in all the noise, Neneh Cherry remains a standout voice.
Before the former Fiery Furnaces frontwoman has stepped onto the stage, her name is swarming around the intimate confines of canalside venue Ekko. Turns out, it’s some artfully placed Third Wave rendition of The Beatles’ "Eleanor Rigby," but it welcomes Eleanor Friedberger onstage like a rabble’s chant. The tech set-up for the performance lets her down in a few instances: a dodgy mic lead connection, the snare drum so loud she feels like “she’s in a different band,” and the growing heat under those stage lights that are “burning [her] brain." But despite the setbacks, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a pro, losing the leather jack and kicking into some choice cuts from her latest solo offering, Rebound. "In Between Stars" is bedded in nature as she flits between the moon, sand, spring, and the sea, while "The Letter" triumphs, showing her knack for narrative arcs as she paints pictures of two lovers, from their stances to their drink choices. But it’s the standout, schmaltzy ballad "Other Boys" from 2013’s Personal Record that encapsulates the blindness of love, the pain of knowing, and the most beautiful closing couplet: “When they stop texting or calling, I’ll be there for the lock-in." In various guises through numerous years, Eleanor Friedberger’s distinct vocal range is a delightful constant.
After a weekend filled with electronic soundscapes and—at points—impenetrable walls of noise, you can see why Manchester duo Virginia Wing might’ve secured the booking. Gutsy opener "Daughter of The Mind's" clattering drums and Moog muttering smack up against one another, while singer Alice Merida Richards limbers up on the floor in her all-white boiler suit and Converse trainers. It’s important to flex, as there’s a lot of avant-garde arrangements in the band’s back catalogue to contend with. On latest record Ecstatic Arrow’s "Be Released," Richards' vocals snake through the venue like the fug of the stage smoke. Her articulate and perfectly pronounced delivery reminds me of harpist and vocalist of conceptual art types Bas Jan and Serafina Steer—another band that revels in tangents and anti-archetypes. The freewheeling sax that appears in "For Every Window There’s A Curtain" is straight from a rainy New York sidewalk in the '40s, but the drums and cowbell are right back up in the noughties art-rock era of The Go Team. That’s the thing about Virginia Wing. At points they veer towards the lo-fi indie electronica you're in tune with, but my betting is that where Virginia Wing is really flying towards is far more obtuse.
Bang on the dot, an unassuming Tirzah walks onto the stage clad in a hoodie, standing in front of the laptop station with her arms behind her back. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that she’s flanked onstage by Lewisham-based MC Coby Sey and schoolfriend and collaborator Mica Levi—both have been longtime collaborators since Tirzah's 2014’s breakthrough EP, I’m Not Dancing. But despite her self-effacing spirit, Tirzah isn’t shy or uncomfortable to be in front of the packed venue, Pandora. She waits patiently as Levi layers up the electro-percussive bedrock before unleashing that voice. It’s just the smoothest, blissful sound. Tirzah ralkes us through latest release Devotion’s self-professed “simple love songs," and we feel them all: the restorative and hopeful sounds of "Fine Again," the wonky pop rhythms of "Do You Know," and the intimacy of album namesake "Devotion" with its level-headed lyricism: “Come to me with honesty / With tenderness." In a world of hyper-sexualized, scantily clad pop singers, Tirzah’s heartfelt slow jams feel more intimate than all of that. And against the minimal lights, it feels euphoric.
What better way to round off the festival weekend than a seated set with musical visionary, Beverly Glenn-Copeland? His is a career that is multi-layered, spanning Sesame Street to New Age synth masterpiece Keyboard Fantasies and beyond. Joined tonight by his “musical teammates,” five-piece ensemble Indigo Rising, Glenn-Copeland proves that while he may have grown in years—he’s still rocking at age 74—that vibrato is still as solid as ever. Many have compared his jazz-infused folk to Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley on a good day, but it’s his onstage ease that makes him such a lovable character: “I talk a lot, and that takes up a lot of time in the set. We only play six songs, but I play mouth for half an hour!” he jokes. But it’s not all charming little asides. Glenn-Copeland tells heartfelt stories of his ancestors that resonate. "Deep River" is tells the story of West African slaves who weren’t allowed to drum, or even gather together except on Sundays. Glenn-Copeland adds, with a cheeky grin, that he’s putting the drum back to beat out a mean conga.
There’s some discrepancy on which final song to play out with, but Glenn-Copeland decides on "Ever New" (drummer Bianca Palmer quips, “It’s the hit!” from behind her drums). It’s a fairly accurate jibe. Taken from Keyboard Fantasies, the track reimagines Glenn-Copeland from a jazzy folk artist to the seductive synthmaster of an '80s Yamaha keyboard and for that, he’s visibly moved. “Without your support, we wouldn’t be here," he says, bowing graciously with the band. There’s a standing ovation across the theatre stalls, and rightly so. A pioneer of electronic music, Beverly Glenn-Copeland welcomes us all, young and old.
Top photo: The Breeders by Ben Houdijk
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Part-time guitarist and full time feminist, Cheri Amour is Deputy Editor of The Girls Are; an online and print magazine showcasing the best and brightest women musicians from across the globe. You'll find her words scattered across the likes of The Guardian and Under The Influence. Cheri is also part of The Other Woman collective hosting a monthly new music show on Resonance FM. Follow her on Twitter @thedivinehammer.