The beautiful thing about foreign festivals is that they add an air of mystery to the proceedings. You are in a strange place, where not everyone will speak your language. Some will speak almost entirely in a funny foreign code, and will not understand English, even if you talk slowly, slightly louder. The signs all conspire against you. And while it is easy enough to navigate from a train station to a rail station to a bus station with a little bit of pointing, and figuring out where You are Here actually is, once you're out on the streets, youre on your own.
So it was for me on the 29th of November. Utrecht, while beautiful in any number of ways, isn't a town known for a dazzling array of hotels, and the festival website itself espouses the idea of couch surfing. For the uptight English, and specifically me, this is a novel concept. Even though you are effectively relying on the kindness of strangers, you get to experience life in that country as it is lived. You are not stuck inside the uniform bubble cell of a hotel, fully sterilized and with breakfast finishing promptly at 11am. You are a house guest, and at the same time, a traveller operating off the map. Plus, you get a chance to make a friend.
We head for Tivoli Oudegracht, the largest venue of the many that make up the stages for Le Guess Who's bill. It lies by the main canal, the Oudegracht, and becomes a central point of navigation for me over the next three days. Of the venues that we see over the course of the festival, it is the one that is least unique. It is a cavernous 2000 capacity shed with a gentle slope from the back to the front, ensuring some sort of view for all but the desperately short. The sound is flat and slightly bassy for all of the acts I see there, so acoustically it isn't perfect. But if you want to see a mid-level headline act comfortably, this is the only game in town.
Which brings us to Mono. There is something that sets them apart from other post rock bands. It's as though they're on a quest to find the optimal tonal balance in each song they write, and in that moment play with the exact amount of intensity necessary to communicate it. They are lost in music to the point where physical performance, in terms of bodily presence, no longer matters. Everything, on all planes available is channelled into making perfect noise. When they break into 'Legend' halfway through their set, it seems as though they may have gone past that limit, one key change too many turning tumult into torture. But they cut it a little early, and under red and white, red and blue light, gradually pull the show back from the brink. It isn't really a show at all, though. It's literally just them in a room, playing their songs and walking off stage.
The difference between Mono and the Dirty Three is stark then, from one band who don't perform, to one who do. In fact, the Dirty Three embody the idea of performance. With all eyes on Warren Ellis, it's questionable whether he is crooning into his violin, high kicking as a showman, or in the final stages of lycanthropic transformation. Where Mono are studied and measured, the Dirty Three are wild and loose in the best sense, a mixture of primal scream therapy and outright mania. When Ellis, during a trademark rambling train-of-thought monologue, mentions this might be their last show in a mighty long time, there is little doubt he means it. Pushing yourself to this level on a bi-nightly basis would be enough to drain even the hardiest soul. Their absence will felt deeply, and their return welcomed.
review by: Thomas Perry
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