This year I was off-duty from the main Great Escape Festival, leaving it in the capable hands of our growing team of writers and photographers (and writer-photographers), I instead dipped into the free festival which runs alongside the main event every year, taking over any left-over scraps of venues which the behemoth of Europe’s largest new music festival has yet to absorb. In fact, as I found myself involved in three different performances as a musician, I didn’t get too much time to explore but I did see some great bands over the three days nonetheless.
On Thursday I found myself inadvertently stage-managing the acoustic sessions in the Black Dove’s gorgeous wood-lined basement. Octopuses had curated a stellar line-up on both floors, but needed an extra pair of hands (the usual compliment of eight were sadly not available) to help things run like clockwork. I was glad I agreed to do it in the end as the weather on Thursday was atrocious, and the music I stumbled upon ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.
First on were Bloom, who played an early set, before dashing off to play elsewhere in the city, celebrating their recent signing to Karousel Music for publishing. There’s a surprisingly good turn out for the band, who are currently featuring Ruby Taylor aka. Yumi & The Weather on guitar, the sun was still just about poking its head through the clouds, suitable for the summery, yet melancholic vibes. Definitely ones to watch over the next year or so, if they keep up the creative surge their debut as Bloom has given them (the band evolved out of The Beautiful Word).
The acoustic stage held some lovely performances throughout the day, as well, although it was a shame some of the folks upstairs didn’t seem to know it existed, or, possibly, felt intimidated out of taking that left turn on their way to the toilets. In the end this just added further intimacy to the magical space, bringing out some great performances. Highlights were at the start and end, with Thomas White from The Fiction Aisle, playing a set that covered a lot of his last ten years of output and some well placed cover versions. Opening the night PATIOLAND played a set of very enjoyable slightly lo-fi outsider acoustica, the duo confessing to having played about five gigs in their 17 years of playing together.
Later I saw an amazing set from Other States, a band I’d never even heard of before this, who weren’t even billed on the poster, after the chaos of pull-outs and replacements Octopuses had to endure to keep this event happening. They describe their music as cowboy psychedelia, I’d say it’s got a touch of 60s garage rock to it as well, but whatever it is it’s damned fantastic and I’m going to be following these guys closely from now on.
Another highlight from Thursday were Jouis, they are a group who’ve been around forever, but one I’ve rarely seen live. I get the impression they are a bit of a collective, either that or they’ve shed a few members since I last caught an incarnation of the group. The set presented tonight was an all-singing three-piece combo of keys, baritone guitar (able to hit the low bass notes and soar up to higher lead licks) and drums playing some phenomenal retro psychedelia – sounding like the band Syd Arthur ought to be. On the strength of this performance they’re an act that should be filling tents in every medium sized festival in the land, but I fear they may lack the agency to get there.
Factory are a brand new group starting to make their emergence on the Brighton scene, featuring Mumdadandthekids guitarist Joe Moon and the-busiest-drummer-in-Brighton Damo Waters, these guys played a strong set of post-punk sounding tunes – it was energetic and enjoyable, particularly impressive considering the fact I know Moon almost had to pull out because of tonsil trouble a few days earlier.
Octopuses themselves were unable to perform, their absent drummer electing to add another month to his disappearance aboard a cruise ship last seen heading for Alaska, and their replacement drummer struck down by a case of the squits. Luckily Adam Bell and Smalan Odgers from the band were already prepared to perform as their new side-project Fruity Water, taking this opportunity to bump themselves much higher up the bill. Their baggy beats, accompanied by Bell on guitar and Odgers on an impressive synth set-up, brought smiles and nodding heads to a happy Black Dove crowd.
I opted to hold down the fort at the Brightonsfinest office on Friday, which is our usual day for unleashing most articles into the world. It didn’t stop me from venturing out and catching a few key sets though, as I managed to secure a place at Republic of Music’s Shipwrights Yard showcase. It wasn’t a ticketed Great Escape event, so they managed potential over-crowding by sending out invitations, allowing people to reserve a limited number of free tickets.
I saw Flamingods open the stage early in the afternoon: what a band. Various members of the team had been raving about them and quite rightly so. Hailing from the nation of small Middle Eastern islands that make up Bahrain these guys play a beat-heavy mix of instruments old and new to create unique, psychedelic live dance music. Their vibe is instantly infectious and a cruel downpour after their first couple of numbers did little to dip their, or the gathering crowd’s spirits.
Later I returned to catch the tail-end of The Magic Gang’s set. I’ve been a fan of these guys since I stumbled across them at the same festival a couple of years ago, setting loose an earworm riddled set of slacker rock tunes that have stayed with me since. My only disappointment would be that they still seem to be playing pretty much the same songs a couple of years later. I guess it’s a hard slog breaking a band in the modern music industry, but if I were those guys I’d be itching to bust out some newer tunes by now… unless they were new tunes and it all sounds the same! I bloody well hope not.
Rose Elinor Dougall was up next. I was super excited to see this performance, having fallen in love with her new album Stellular earlier in the year. I had found clashes with all of the dates she’s done that prevented me seeing the album live so far, and I’m a firm believer that live is where the magic happens so this was the moment and they did not disappoint. It was only a short set of five or six songs but they made it count, with tracks like ‘Closer’ coming to vibrant life before an eager crowd. The album title track, ‘Stellular’, saw their live guitarist ramp up the distortion and add some bite and unexpected menace to bring the set home, but it was well balanced with the sparkling pop and effortless cool on display throughout.
A mixture of excitement and uncertainty filled the crowd after their set finished. The stage busied with roadies swapping equipment round for the secret headliners. Word filtered round to me eventually that I was about to see Deaf Havana in action, a band I’d never listened to, but a name I’d been hearing on a lot of lips in the run up to the festival. As it transpired these guys were playing commercial guitar rock in a Biffy Clyro vein, a sound that I was never going to get on board with. It’s heavy-ish rock music, but the kind they’d play on Radio One in the afternoon, so I decided to bow out and make way so that a younger, keener person queuing outside could take my place.
Saturday was all about Brightonsfinest’s own event, one I know several of our writers were dipping in and out of throughout the day, so I won’t linger too long to tell you about what I saw here. Suffice to say St Mary’s Church in Kemptown is not one of those scraps I mentioned earlier, but a true gem of a space. Gigantic vaulted ceilings and acoustics that are as gorgeous as they are challenging to your average band.
Coming all the way from New York, Pavo Pavo opened the show and sounded mesmerising and beautiful. I’d first been sent a link to the album by our own Iain Lauder, because he could see a similarity with my beloved Grizzly Bear, another New York group who play sophisticated alternative pop. In the church Pavo Pavo sounded like they were in the same space as GB’s Veckatimest album, which was largely recorded in a similarly reverberous room. Far from a Grizzly clone though these guys have some great tunes of their own and their stunning set encouraged me to go back and give their recent debut album another listen, it really is a corker.
Sam Walker played an amazing set too, making use of the space like no one else. This multi-instrumentalist often plays out as a one man band, but today was joined by a guitarist conjuring ethereal sounds from a pog (Electro-Harmonix guitar pedal of some renown) amongst other toys. Sam was playing familiar songs, but in his inimitable fashion, those songs have evolved since I last saw him, potentially even just for this space in some cases. His voice soared like few could, and he closed by walking down the central aisle, singing all the way, making full use of the natural acoustics and making sure no one there watching would forget him in a hurry.
Later in the day I legged it across town to see Shona Foster’s return to performing. Shona has been very quiet for at least three years, I’d say, after all her stunning debut album The Moon And You, came out way back in 2011. It’s about time we had some new material. The stage at the Pelirocco, which is a space I love, was not ideal for this occasion. Crammed beyond full the back of the room contained many a nonchalant chatterer, which created a hum in the room that the small PA wasn’t quite adequate to overcome, particularly not when you’re dealing with an artist whose magic comes from expertly manipulated dynamics and beautiful, sparse and soaring vocals. It was all there, of course, only struggling to breakthrough against the backdrop of sweaty devotees. It’s ironic that the number of folks keen to see Shona’s return probably made that return a more difficult one than I, for one, would have liked to have experienced. And yet the new material shone through nonetheless. She’s a great artist and I really hope this performance leads on to bigger and brighter things, albeit with a calmer, quieter audience, please!