Warding Off Cynicism: Walking The Line @ TivoliVredenburg

Personal Trainer

Yesterday, for better or worse, was a day to remember. After a three-month live music drought, I got to see four fifteen-minute sets as part of TivoliVredenburg’s Walk The Line Indie program. Let’s not beat around the bush: this event felt like a thinly-veiled promo tour to exhibit all the venues in the building. But the overriding feeling was not cynicism. Now is not the time to harangue you with metaphors of Jurassic Park, with some of these bands being displayed outside of their natural ecosystem, the tight-packed venues that celebrate culture, not some kind of makeshift mall without any semblance of a soul.

No, this is not the time for such snark. TivoliVredenburg-programmer Doortje Hiddema, also of the excellent Real Derek, has actually found a constructive way to experience live music in these splintered times. Groups of forty people got to see Robin Kester, Naive Set, The Sweet Release Of Death and Personal Trainer perform. And the perks of these settings are as intriguing as the cons: people are not talking during the sets, and the distance really compels visitors to home in on what’s happening on stage, instead of discussing their weekend. When there’s no other distractions, the music can make a profound impact.

Out of all the artists, I think Robin Kester benefits the most from this setting. Her sound is difficult to place and that’s a very good thing. At moments, she sounds like Nick Drake trading in his earthly autumnal flourishes for something more alien, like a planet designed by Moebius or something. Ultimately, I feel she’s still sort of testing the proverbial waters with her toes. To illustrate, the prospect of a burgeoning Dutch artist using the sonic landscape of Stereolab or Animal Collective to craft threadbare folk sounds, well, tantalizing. At times I’m reminded of the more sinister cuts of Portishead’s self-titled record, or Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man’s gorgeous Out Of Season. Long story short, interesting to see where her whims will lead her.

Obviously, fifteen minutes is way too small a sample size to make any definitive judgment, but I do feel her set has moments where she could really lean into it more and create some genuine chaos, without necessarily becoming louder. It felt a little too tidy and restrained, I think her set could benefit from a little more off-the-cuffness. A little bird told me she’s working on new material with the likes of Conor O’ Brien (Villagers) and Maarten Vos, definitely the kind of individuals who court a little more spontaneity. We shall see.

Next up are Naive Set who have been one of my favorite bands of the past decade. The Cloud Nine venue is embellished in sort of a lounge lizard setting with tables, and part of me hoped Naive Set would use this opportunity to show up on stage fully dressed in flannel suits. But as I stated once (in my interview for Drowned In Sound to be precise), this bunch is so refreshingly ‘over themselves’, happy to churn out five-star tunes to the humdrum pace that suits them. Their latest single ‘Soft on Terror’ once again draws from one of Mikey Casalaina’s goofy turns of phrase, sonically from the more bucolic vibes of second album Dragon.

The change in personnel is so natural, it hardly even feels worth noticing. Jan Schenk (of the great Hospital Bombers) produced the band’s self-titled debut, and really is the only guy who could fill Matthias Kreutzer’s rubber boots on guitar. Doing these short bursts of fifteen-minute sets takes a different type of toll on all the artists performing, but for Naive Set, it kind of suits them ill. Sure, they can probably cram in more tracks within the timespan than anyone else tonight. But having seen them perform so many times, I’ve come to realize they always need a bit of a headstart to shake some of the awkwardness that is ultimately their charm. I mean, they’ve always been an antithesis of big blustering rock performances, deliberately keeping their shows small and intimate. That disposition ultimately allows the listener to really home in on Naive Set’s modest greatness: how effortlessly they can shift between goofing off and allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

A lyric so emblematic to that mindset is off of ‘So Far So Good’, one of the tracks they played tonight, “ First comes the verse / Before the chorus comes / That is, if it ever comes / I guess if it never comes / There always will be another song” A sentiment that feels like such a throwaway line for a band who just understand what they do best without false pretense, yet now, as we’re wondering whether we’ll ever get live music back, these words strike as especially cogent. But the songs… the songs will always come, especially if it’s Naive Set we’re talking about. Honestly I shed a tear. I hope Naive Set will be one of those bands that sticks around for life. Even on nights like this when their magic sputters out prematurely, they always manage to pull something redeeming out of their top hats.

Sputtering out is something The Sweet Release Of Death threatened to do well this past year. The Blissful Joy Of Living is a blatantly honest snapshot of a band on the brink of self-destructing, yet as circumstances would have it, it’s brought Alicia Breton Ferrer, Martijn Tevel and Sven Engelsman more international acclaim than ever. The act of self-destructing is now an energy they harness and mold with aplomb. I can think of only a handful of live acts I find more exciting to watch, but nevertheless, I was wondering how a trinity known for such hyper-intense, emotionally and physically toiling performances would perform in bursts of fifteen minutes.

Well, turns out they do it just fine. Some bands feed off of the energy of a crowd, but The Sweet Release Of Death just envelop you into their world and hold you hostage. They are used to playing for small crowds, even smaller than this, so this is actually quite a natural situation. That new song they play as their opener is probably their best one yet. It just builds intensity at such a blistering rate that the neurons in the brain have trouble catching up. It sounds as if This Heat decided to cover Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ or something along those lines.

‘Sway’ is just a beautiful song that just soars higher and higher, and as the title suggests, shrewdly flirts with a more danceable side. ‘Post-Everything’ has this drumbeat that could have easily been sampled by DJ Shadow at some point. And closer ‘Sick Girl’ leans on the band’s core instincts, shredding everything to its fundamentals. If The Sweet Release Of Death make another record, I do hope they will explore new sides, maybe refine their sound and challenge themselves to write outside of their comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong: their comfort zone is probably my favorite place to be in, but their music can stretch out to so many more sonic avenues. The final track on The Blissful Joy Of Living, The Weather Is Great Today, offers a sweet glimpse of what could happen if the band would spread their muscles and force themselves into different creative parameters.

Speaking of creative parameters: Personal Trainer entertain the notion that there’s no such thing. The project revolves around Willem Smit (Canshaker Pi) and a constantly rotating cast of Dutch indie rock faithfuls, a doozy of a dynamic that gives each show its own unique set of intangibles. Personally, I think they are the most fun-to-watch band in the current Dutch landscape, a band that transcends niche snobbism and cranks fringe alternative culture up to the Orange Catholic Bible. At the heart of this holistic energy is Smit: similar to LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, he exudes this uncanny adulation to records he adopted (he is the son of Scram C Baby’s John Cees Smit, to give you a faint idea of his musical purview), and pulls them into the wayward vernacular of his band.

It really homes into the early sentiment: now is not the time for cynicism. If any band embodies the spirit that Live Music Will Survive, it’s Personal Trainer. And really, that was before this COVID-19-nonsense swept over the music industry like the annihilation wave. Willem Smit works with what he has at his direct disposal –whoever will answer the call — and makes the most of it. It’s hard not to smile when he immediately tumbles floor-bound like some soccer player crying foul, just as his rich cast of instrumentalists create an intro that would make The Who proud. The only thing that would have gotten people on their feet was as if one band member would leapfrog in the air like Pete Townshend.

Within all the haphazardness and mischief going about, there’s definitely a shrewdness as well. Personal Trainer flirt just enough with familiar indie rock tropes to arouse warm sentiment, without outright copying the source material. The percussion at one point immediately brought to mind Yo La Tengo’s Autumn Sweater, other moments revived the spirit of Guided By Voices’ Do The Collapse. With Willem Smit as the jester in court, Personal Trainer love messing with you, sometimes prematurely cutting off songs with melodies most bands would kill to build whole songs around. Even in just fifteen minutes, there was too many zany hijinks happening at the Ronda to really keep track of, more than most rock shows can achieve in an hour.

By the time the show was over, Smit could hardly catch his breath. It’s hard to blame when you’re the instigator of a band that’s basically all your favorite indie rock artists crammed into one big theatrical display of blithe foolishness. Even though the show was seated, I couldn’t help but get on my feet. So did Erik Schumacher of Apneu, who was on the same tour as myself. I was suddenly reminded of a moment when members of Apneu and Canshaker Pi invaded the stage at Hallo Venray’s 30th Anniversary show. Schumacher tripped over Henk Koorn’s extension cord during closer ‘Japanese Cars’, cutting off all the guitars. Undeterred, Hallo Venray kept playing louder and louder. I’d like to think that little moment of slapstick somehow informed Personal Trainer’s whole MO, subconsciously: happenstance is something to embrace, never something to apologize for.

And in the bigger picture, with happenstance fracturing our long-cherished relationship with live music, I’d like to think we’ll be alright. I just hope that with the absence of international artists, we can further put our homegrown into the limelight, those who find a way to safeguard this energy for us until things start to resemble the before. Tonight was an adequate, and surprisingly lovely reminder of that. Consider my spirit replenished.

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Jasper Willems

Jasper Willems

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