Festival Frolics: Le Guess Who? May Day 2012.

Trundling into Utrecht early afternoon, the first notable difference with the full November edition of Le Guess Who? is the weather. The sun beams down upon every last face and the locals seem even cheerier than usual. Strolling past the most sizeable venue, Tivoli, we stumble upon co-organiser Bob who’s aiding Julia Holter in loading out. That little scene right there just about sums up the whole festival: all about passion and a friendly, down to earth atmosphere. Though it’s only for a solitary day, there are loads of acts to choose from although seeing as I don’t have a bike, I settle on staying put at Tivoli all night.
First up is Holter, who plays an RSVP-only show upstairs where the temperature's already absolutely blistering. With each step upward I can feel the heat become increasingly pressing and in amongst the profuse sighs and puffs of all, I take a seat. Forever seems to pass before Julia takes the stage, backed up only by a drummer and cellist. It’s obvious that the heat makes everyone struggle: Julia doesn’t exactly look enthusiastic and after two songs divulges that she and her band have been up for 35 hours straight, and that they’re overly warm. “We’re all really warm together here” she rightly contends, conjuring a chuckle or two.

That aside, Julia manages to slowly yet surely convince everyone of why she deserves all the attention she’s been getting of late: less ethereal than on record and instead adding a very welcome extra dimension via the cello, it is especially – and unsurprisingly – Julia’s voice that shines. Playing for well over an hour her set knows high and lows but the best is most definitely kept for last. By then, however, the heat has become almost unbearable and so enjoying it isn’t quite as easy. The same strain may be applied to her drummer too, who’s either sleeping or seemingly in deep pain when hitting anything in what is a slightly strange sight, to say the least...
Up next is Sharon Van Etten who plays the big old room where it is, thankfully, a lot cooler. From the umpteen posters adorning the walls of Tivoli you can immediately sense that this is quite the music temple, which makes for exquisite infrastructure and sound. This results in a perfect set from Sharon who’s obviously enjoying herself: exclusively airing songs off Tramp – with the exception of "a very, very, very, very, very old one" dixit she – Van Etten completely hits her stride with the relatively new audience acquired over the past couple of months. Everything sounds spot on and you can feel the tension throughout the room. How Sharon manages to belt out the most beautiful sounds with her mouth barely agape never ceases to amaze and, ultimately, it is as literally breathtaking as any live show gets.
Though in an entirely different way, Moonface also snatch breath from gob: Spencer Krug takes the stage and you can immediately feel his authority. Not that it's in any way threatening nor disturbing; there’s just no way around it: Krug is something of an icon. Of course he never acts like one, but the way in which he holds everyone’s attention with his sparse moves and enthralling voice intimates such status. Siinai play backing band but are in no way pushed to the background: Moonface and Siinai (as Spencer continually references them) are a whole; a single entity; a match made in heaven. It feels like a collaboration that was always meant to happen. Live, the album translates differently: it is immediately both more powerful and direct. The deep drones and bass make hearts pound and hypnotise minds, with every song offering something novel.

The highlight of the evening, however, is most definitely Cloud Nothings. Acting as if they've not a fuck in the world, the diminutive and unassuming punks storm through their set without Dylan ever uttering anything more than a deferential: "Hi, we’re a band from Cleveland, Ohio called Cloud Nothings" as though already bored by such punctilio. Having witnessed them on a tiny stage, in a tiny club earlier that week it is instantly obvious that Cloud Nothings are destined for greater things. The big stage suits them a thousand times better and they sound HUGE [caps off]. They've evidently been practicing, even if Attack On Memory had already proven that Dylan Baldi is rapidly maturing – at the very least musically. They’ve never sounded tighter and Wasted Days is the absolute climax: clocking in at around 15 minutes it never ceases to stupefy even for a second. Indeed just to admire drummer Jayson Gerycz for the duration of the show would be entertaining enough though: the way he makes everything look so effortless is a joy to behold. Cloud Nothings have grown into a proper rock band, and I mean that in the most complimentary manner possible.

Heading to EKKO for Nguzunguzu on my exhausted feet, I’m in for the biggest disappointment of the day: the whole thing turns out to be a flat DJ set which leaves everyone yearning for something considerably more substantial. But a bed is what I need primarily by this point, and so direction home it is. This particular May Day has been a more than welcome addition to the estival European circuit, and nearly enough to tide us over 'til the gloom of November reemerges...

Anika Taylor. Photography courtesy of Carmel McNamara.