Utrecht: the go-to place for live music in the Netherlands

On the invitation of Valletta 2018 and Utrecht Muziek, Stagedive Malta’s Robert Pisani and Luigi Pellegrini made their way to Utrecht’s Le Guess Who festival, last November. Luigi Pellegrini tells us more

Botenparte. Photo by Willem Mes
Botenparte. Photo by Willem Mes

I had never heard of the Le Guess Who? Festival prior to Valletta 2018 getting in touch with Stagedive Malta, and all I knew about Utrecht itself was that it is a canal city, and the birth place of football legend Marco Van Basten. Little did I know that I was to fall in love with both the city and its festival, eager to return at the first opportunity.

Le Guess Who? is an alternative music festival held over four days in November. Now in its ninth edition, LGW’s music ethos is fiercely non-mainstream. While other European festivals (arguably bigger ones) do include artists who have crossed over to a wider following, LGW?’s big names for this edition were the likes of Swans, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Einstruzende Neubauten.

More about the festival later. But first, some perspective. That Utrecht embraces culture and the arts is a bit of an understatement. The city has a turbulent and colourful history, and has much to offer to the visitor who is seeking the best of all worlds, be it events, museums, cuisine or just hanging out in the medieval city centre. Clearly, both the man in the street and the powers that be are proud of their heritage and want to put Utrecht on the map. To this end, the local council and other bodies provide generous funding to make this happen. In terms of music, I would argue that Utrecht is indeed the go-to place for live performances in the Netherlands.

Getting to Utrecht from Amsterdam’s Schipol airport was a piece of cake. Utrecht is just a half hour train ride from the airport’s train terminal. It’s a 15-minute wait at max, and there’s free wifi for the ride.

We stayed at the NH Utrecht, a five-minute walk from the train station. The location was extremely convenient, just a 10-minute walk to the pedestrianised city centre, and their breakfast included many healthy options which kept us energised for the rest of the morning.

On our first night we made our way to De Helling, one of the several festival venues. But first we were peckish, and our wonderful hosts, Lidy and Maarten from Utrecht Muziek, had just the place – LE:EN, an old welder’s factory transformed into an Asian restaurant – fresh, great-tasting food at a reasonable price.  It was also our first encounter with the city’s student population. Utrecht is after all home to some 40 thousand University students, with many of them moonlighting as bartenders and waiting staff.

Happily fuelled for the rest of the night, we were ready for the first band on our ‘to watch’ list. Enter Jim White, the eclectic drummer who always has a new project up his sleeve. This time round he’s teamed up with Giorgos Xylouris, a lute player and singer from Crete. A weird coupling on paper, but the two gel wonderfully.

And this brings me to another important aspect of the festival – the diversity within the line-up. This was no publicity stunt, nor an effort to be hip. Folk music singer and activist Selda – “the bitter sound of Turkish people”, and Baby Dee (a transgender, classically-trained harpist and singer-songwriter), both took the centre stage because that is precisely where they belonged. I’m sure that (as in my case) some of these performers were new to a good number of the festival-goers, such as Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg songwriter who performed as a three-piece band. Psych-rock and turbans – it works!

A festival within a festival

LGW?’s eclectic line-up turned out to be a true music-lover’s wet dream. Besides fronting Swans to a jam-packed hall on Saturday, Michael Gira had been working with the LGW? organisers behind the scenes, as the curator for the Mouth to Mouth sessions. The selection criteria? Artists who Gira found to be compelling performers. With Swans’ renowned live concerts setting the standard, it was bound to be intense – from electronic pioneers The Silver Apples and the ever-evolving Leafcutter John at one end, to the Savages/Bo Ningen noise-combo at the other… Mouth to Mouth alone was the source of enough excitement to keep one buzzing for the rest of the year.

But there’s more – a collaboration with New York’s Basilica Hudson Foundation led to the world premiere of the Dronefest – 24 hours straight of performances and installations.

Last but not least was another American collaboration, this time with the Austin, Texas’ Psych Festival. There was more diversity in the form of Mali’s Tamikrest, and the return of one of the genre’s unique purveyors – Loop.

So although we were in Utrecht primarily for the festival, in the process we were to discover a vibrant yet relaxed city. Amongst the many other festivals held in Utrecht one finds the Early Music Festival, spanning over no less than 10 days.

The Domtoren (the cathedral’s tower, also Holland’s highest tower) is indeed a sight to behold. The Domplein, the square where Utrecht was founded, is home to 2000 years of Utrecht’s fascinating passage across time – from the first Roman settlements, to the building of the gothic cathedral, to the DOMunder – an interactive archaeological site situated under the square, with relics spanning from the Roman remains to the gothic cathedral, which was destroyed by a tornado in the 17th century.

The city centre hosts both an eclectic flea market and exciting designer shops. While walking through the various canals and wharves one will discover the city’s cellars, some of which are now eateries, boutiques and music venues – truly a unique local experience.

The museums are many and varied. The creator of Miffy, Dick Bruina, is a Utrecht native, and the Dick Bruina Huis is home to many of his works. Then there is the Science Park, which has been described as the Netherland’s “heart of knowledge based economy”, and a shining example of the Dutch flair for modern architecture and design. Utrecht is also home to the UNESCO-listed Rietveld Schroder House, considered to be Gerrit Rietveld’s masterpiece.

The Tivoli Vredenburg opened only last summer, and is Holland’s biggest music venue. It consists of no less than five concert halls, with each hall ‘specialising’ in a particular music style. Be it an intimate chamber music ensemble to a rock band, the venue has a space suited for any live music performance. The design of each hall was awarded to different architectural firms, so as to ensure the diverse atmosphere within the complex, while also bringing to the fore the Dutch school of design within a very particular setting. In July 2015, the venue will host a special Kraftwerk 3-D concert for Le Grand Départ, the Tour de France’s first weekend, which will in fact commence from Utrecht.

And therein lies my only not so positive thought about my weekend – that at the rate that the festival’s audience is growing, even the Vredenburg’s biggest hall might not be able to accommodate the audience in a couple of years’ time. It was estimated that for the last edition some 25% of the festival-goers were foreigners.

I can’t wait to return and further discover all that this wonderful little city has to offer.

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