As I blurted out to Mica Levi (“Micachu”) after catching her “and the Shapes” in Amsterdam, Utrecht is “kinda pastoral Dutch.” I was (existentially) flustered and this is in no way true – I’ve only come across one windmill in town, and no clogs. I think what I was getting at it perhaps that Utrecht is more low key than Amsterdam; we’re smaller here, we’ve got fewer tram lines and, thankfully, are not swamped by baked Brit teens. Yet, it’s a burgeoning stop-off for many up-and-coming bands. The music scene is phenomenal for a little medieval city so close to a capital. Far from being an explicit comparison to Exeter’s ‘music scene’, this shall act as a bit of a musical diary, recording a month of my time (November) in the Netherlands on my year abroad.
This month saw Le Guess Who? festival arrive in venues all around town for what has been dubbed as the best European city festival. With most of the festival curated by Sun O))), Constellation Records, LGW & Gaudeamus and Levitation also put together artists from around the globe came to perform in a veritably eclectic smorgasbord of oral delights. Most of the festival occurred in Tivoli, a huge multi-venue complex of about a billon floors (well, like, nine). Over the four days various stages competed for the most impressive line-up, and that’s not to mention the venues outside of Tivoli, most of which were nearby the Oudegracht (the main canal which is super picturesque) and five minutes away on the bike!
So, I essentially went because Shabazz Palaces and Deradoorian were on the bill (both producing one-a-piece my favourite albums in the last few years). Without a doubt Shabazz Palaces were to best thing I saw, with their intricately layered, crunchy rap. Deradoorian was unsurprisingly beautiful, with intensely technical renderings of her take on raga and hocketing. However, there were a few other stand out moments, and nice surprises. List time!
- Islam Chipsy/EEK
Raucously fun. Two live drummers and Islam Chipsy manning the intricately joyous keyboard with the most infectious smile create a thumping Egyptian soundwall that works at its best live.
- Julia Holter
I came to this relatively unversed in her impressive output (pretty much one album a year). In the immensely beautiful Janskerk church Holter created some stunningly unearthly sounds. Mixing folk, art pop even electronic and baroque, Holter seems more composer than singer-songwriter.
I could laud this post-punk quartet for forever. Really brilliant stuff, playing a few from their first LP More Than Any Other Day but also proving the worth of their recent release Sun Coming Down. Favorite track live: Beautiful Blue Sky
- Na Hawa Doumbia
Introduced to us as THE diva of African (very specific) music, Doumbia and her band were soulful and joyous. Impressive djembe and (lute) solos punctuated Doumbia incredibly powerful voice. It’s a shame the venue, Theatre Kikker, was seated seeing as the audience were evidently itching to join in at the moments Doumbia broke out in dance.
- Annette Peacock
The programme detailed her “one-time collaborator Salvador Dali” and I was intrigued. Peacock reminded me a little of a more romantic Laurie Anderson, with the tugging vocals like that of Joni Mitchell. An audience member called out between tracks to a bemused Peacock “I love you, thank you so much, you’re beautiful” (+ repeat), testament to the captivating sounds she was producing. At the end of the set she walked off mid-track with the music still playing; was any of it real? Was it all a dream?
+ honorable mentions to DJ Paypal, LIIMA and Wilbert Bulsink and Jessica Sligter (with a commissioned composition).
Before all this I found myself at EKKO two times in one week. This is a really lovely venue with impressive sound and lighting considering it DIY size. Serving up (probably vegan) food in the attached cafe which is scattered with boardgames, EKKO seems at once cosy and slightly too trendy. Note the use tasteful of neon signs, who knew that was possible.
Here, you’re likely to see the same people at gigs every night, and there’s something really lovely about that
9 November: Palace
Palace are a four-piece “alt-rock” outfit from London. I put “alt-rock” in inverted commas because the term feels a little meaningless. It’s a label slapped onto a lot of music and perhaps reflects to lack of diversity in the recent ‘indie’ scene. Palace at face value fit into this purview pretty comfortably, four white blokes making music championed by Jamie T (he asked them to support him when they released “In the Night” EP). But it seems disingenuous to lump them so entirely with what ‘alt-rock’ has come to mean. Palace obviously haven’t completely reproduced what is becoming an ostensibly boring and homogenous genre. Other labels might point more precisely to what they are doing. Think; Jangly Chill-rock, Surfer blues, or as they themselves have termed in “Alternative Blues Space Rock” (sure.) I’m perhaps not convincingly describing how the “alt-rock” label might be a bit ungenerous to Palace, perhaps its because I’m not totally convinced myself, but imbued in their two EP releases seems a more genuine attempt then fluffy sub-divisions of the “alt-rock” umbrella that wrestle to legitimize its relative banality.
All four technically are very accomplished. This much was apparent seeing them live. Leo Wyndam’s guitar riffs were instantly catchy and intricate. The new tracks seemed slightly ‘heavier’ that their previous offerings. However, they largely were indistinguishable from each other, often relying on the same structure of refrain, and riff interlude. Looking at their Instagram perhaps explains why they ended up at EKKO, their aesthetic is totally tight and totally DIY. File next to: Goodbye Chanel, Febueder and Genghar.
11th November: Braids
Cementing Canada’s reputation for impressive musical output, Braid’s presence in EKKO is testament to the venue’s providing space for low-key talent. Braid’s brand of pop places not only hope but genuine enjoyment and sincerity back in the genre. Deep in the Iris, released in April, has unabashed feminist themes which is so refreshing when coupled with musical integrity of the band. Live, Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s vocals are even more affectingly crystalline. They are about to finish their European tour, but definitely check them out – ‘Miniskirt’ is anthemic.
So ends my little tour of Utrecht. It’s a really great place, with an impressive cultural scene. Its size is perhaps the key in its attracting blossoming talents and more established names; it fosters a real community feel in the way a big city can’t. Here you’re likely to see the same people at gigs every night, and there’s something really lovely about that. I’ll end with my favourite fact in my advocacy of this little Dutch city; in her recent European tour of eight dates (half of them in England), Joanna Newsom stopped off not in Amsterdam but in Utrecht. That’s one off the bucket list for me, and proof that exciting stuff can happen beyond those big metropolitan centres; we can see it in Bristol, maybe there’s hope for Exeter yet.