Herrek and Port of Call - Maria Ter Zee, Noordwijk 5/4/13

Basically you need to concentrate and if you’re intent on cutting rug or babbling onto your pal, there’s simply no point watching Herrek.

photo courtesy of WotNxt

Marcel van Schooten of SUB071 fame has dragged me to some out of the way places to see some gigs this last 7 years or so. Like some local psycho-geographer come underground wizard (with me cast as the unwitting accomplice) he’s turned some pretty strange nights in the Bollenstreek into reviews in Incendiary, which, I suppose, is all to the good. Wherever the Muse strikes with an underground gig, it seems Marcel has been the Master of Puppets. We’ve seen some out of the ordinary evenings in restored 19th century barns, schools, bulb sheds, squats, in fields, shops, living rooms, grand theatre halls, galleries, gardens and now (in the latest chapter) a church. 

The building in question, Maria Ter Zee, is a church with some sort of Community / Drop In Centre attached: and a church which has a bar and toilets that have (given their cleanliness and automatic lights) long been pressed into the Service of Our Lord. Sitting in this bar also means I can avoid most of Noordwijk’s boozers,*  ingress of which have, over the years, brought me into contact with some stunning examples of all that is worst and most punchable in British and German tourist behaviour.  Not forgetting (how could you) a considerable injection of local yokelry and small time crims; all making for a heady mixture.

(*The excellent Koffiehuis is exempt from the list, having a cool clientele and charming staff. At least no-one turns into an perma-tanned gremlin drenched in aftershave after 8pm in there.)

Anyway, I decide that I’m happily set where I am. And it’s cheap as chips here. The parable of the loaves and fishes seems to have been pressed into service when it comes to fruits of the vintner’s trade, so we’re in a pleasant fug when we enter the beautifully lit church to see Pieter van der Vliet, aka Port of Call. Pieter’s a singer songwriter from nearby Rijnsburg. I’ve seen him play a few times before and always enjoyed the gig whilst never feeling under any compunction to investigate his recorded work. It’s not Pieter’s fault, but it’s more to do with listening to records of this kind: as I find that some vital element is missing, or lost in the recording. Frankly, unless it’s someone with a startling personality or message, (step forward Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Johnny Richman, Dylan, or Cohen, the usual figureheads), I just don’t get anything out of the genre. And it’s a hard shift sitting through the aforementioned names too, at times.

Pieter prowls around the building before settling down with his guitar. Given the facts that the Church’s acoustics are startling, (one of those buildings where you can hear someone’s whispered conversation ten feet away) and he’s fully amplified, the sound is very powerful. Maybe too much so. The vocals get a bit lost in a mid-range fuzz of feedback, and the guitar drifts in and out of the gig, sometimes a beautiful counterpoint to the melody lines, sometimes indistinct and dragging the sound into a sort of unsatisfying, opaque stew. That’s not to say it’s unlistenable, rather, it’s frustrating. And by the end (on request from a bold audience member) he leaves the mic behind and plays without anything to back him but the building’s acoustics. Which is, in the circumstances, a much better thing to do.

But regardless of sound issues, it’s plain to this sparse crowd that this lad has bags of talent and has a new found presence and authority. Maybe it’s him growing up a bit, toughening up, and accepting that this isn’t some nice hobby to amuse his pals with, but that his talents need constant exercise: that being a performing artist means hard work. In fact he has got so good since I last saw him he could turn into something special, given happy circumstance. His voice is a stunning one and one that has matured considerably: rich and flexible, strong enough to hold a quiet note for a few bars, able to drop or jump an octave, and one that doesn’t sound awkward when pressed into a rougher delivery. He has a good appreciation of when to hold back too; able to set up suspense, able to charm with a sultry line or wistful turn of phrase. This goes well with his mercurial flowing guitar playing; (Pieter plucks rather than picks and he’s pretty much a virtuoso at setting up the sort of flowing rhythmic undercurrent that dovetail with the vox). I’m also glad he’s stripped away all the affectations and concentrated on what he does best, though one of those bloody tiny guitars that should have never been allowed out of Peru, or wherever they come from, gets wheeled out at the end. Still, we were mighty impressed. Now it’s down to Pieter to find a way to get the word out. 

After this we get Herrek, a brooding, earnest five piece, founded by Gerrit (late of the mighty Bonne Apart). Herrek’s latest EP, Waktu Dulu is a hypnotic record, and one whose subtleties and undercurrents can easily be overlooked live, which is a shame because it’s a great release. Gerrit wisely introduces the set (which is effectively just Waktu Dulu) to the matrons, parents and uncomfortable local groovers who comprise the audience as a memory bubble about his childhood in Papua, an ode to memories from the distant past. Backed with the film – of old camcorder footage of a young Gerrit and his family trekking through the jungle) this ploy soothed the audience into realising that this Amplified Sound of Youth had a message too. Some of those present had earlier cast anxious glances at the sight of an electric guitar and a drum kit, but the trusting atmosphere allowed the music’s sultry and patient flowing rhythms to seep gently into the space.

When we saw Herrek play the same set at Subbacultcha’s Sound of the Underground bash in the Melkweg, (with the same visual backdrop) it all got lost a bit; with a lot of the underpinning strengths of the music slightly cast aside. To be fair, that particular gig’s ambience wasn’t helped with all the Bright Young Things running in an out and squawking to their mates… Basically you need to concentrate and if you’re intent on cutting rug or babbling onto your pal, there’s simply no point watching Herrek. Here things were different; with a captive audience, a hushed, beautifully lit church, a clear link between music and visuals and a cleverly muted sound to take advantage of the building’s acoustics, the gig was a memorable one. The music shifted subtly in key and played about with textures, reliant on a few key points in the melody line to alter perceptions. The last few numbers exploited their inherently devotional side, the chants and counter vocals locking into a sensual, rhythmic pattern. People swayed along in their seats, strapped into the simple loops of rhythm and harmony. All in all, a quiet triumph.

Afterwards there was time for a chat with the contented if ever so slightly bemused church staff,   before taking advantage of this country’s excellent bus service to get back to high heel land (Leiden). Where next, we wonder, a windmill?