The Great Escape – 2014

It’s a remarkable beast, this three-day showcase of new music from around the globe. Music lovers descend upon Brighton in their thousands (approximately 15000+), slap bang in the middle of the month-long arts and culture feasts that are the venerable Brighton Festival and England’s largest open access fringe, Brighton Fringe Festival. In fact, The Great Escape takes over to such an extent that the aforementioned festivals practically stop in their tracks, as if waiting for a passing train that cannot stop, such is its power and momentum. Occasionally, you come across a culture vulture who bemoans this interloper, but all-in-all it’s a brilliant addition to what is a veritable playground of arts and cultural entertainment in the month of May.
 
Now in its ninth year, and once again sold out, if you are willing to endure the queues, the often inclement weather, the hustle and bustle of crowds, and you have the stamina to race around the city from the morning to the early hours – perhaps helped along by the poisons of your choice – there is, short of a normal type outdoor festival, no other opportunity like it here in the UK.
 
The Great Escape actually kicks off on the Wednesday and therefore the Spiegeltent was a good place to be, just before the hordes have properly descended and setup camp. The Made in Brighton showcase featured the very promising and very young indie-guitar band Paperboy, complete with a ska twist, while headliners Yumi & The Weather showcased the very delicious blend of soulful guitar-electronica. This is a band with very few shows under their belt, but a promising future beckons.
Yumi And The Weather
Yumi And The Weather
But Thursday is where it really kicks off, and a little after midday (daytime shows are often the best, there’s something rather magical about seeing bands out of their natural night time habitat) the beguiling three piece indie-electronica of Momotaro (who include an electronic drum kit in their set up) was a gentle way to get going, before heading over to the Blind Tiger Club which over the last few years has traditionally hosted daytime showcases from various parts of Canada. Always of a high standard, and a perfect venue for some afternoon live music (ie, not too dark and gloomy), there was just enough time to catch the highly regarded pop and rock songstress Hannah Georgas and her band who finished off with the pulsing ‘Waiting Game’, before braving the dire seafront conditions to witness the old school soul-funk vibes of Newcastle’s Smoove + Turrell. Back to the Latest Music Bar – which hosted four days of Alternative Escape action – the explosive two drumkit team of AK/DK is always a temperature raiser, although they perhaps suffered a little from the early start on this occasion, obviously not enough alcohol having been imbibed at this point to really appreciate their raucous Krautrock fusion.
 
Recently Brighton based, and signed to Atlantic Records, Paul Thomas Saunders’ Vangelis-inspired atmospheric and intelligent pop was apt for the grand St Mary’s Church, if a little sparsely attended (but these are early days for this special talent), while later in the evening, at the Uncut stage in the Dome’s Studio Bar, the much talked about Phox were making their very first appearance in Brighton, as part of their very first UK tour. However, the seven-piece oddball Wisconsin bands articulate and playful indie pop failed to gel properly, but again these are early days…
 
On to day two, and after a quick and invigorating blast of three guitar action from Latin America’s Prime Ministers playing at The Alternative Escape venue The Mucky Duck, a visit to The Warren was in order, where Chloe Howl was going through her paces during a soundcheck. Amidst the banks of high-end equipment there’s nothing quite like witnessing such a high profile pop act performing with the lights up, with no ‘stage’ dress, and only a handful of crew and entourage in attendance (and not paying attention). Not quite the Emperor’s New Clothes, but still, Chloe Howl’s pop is very much for the teens.
 
AK/DK
AK/DK
Back into the incredible gloom of Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar for a 3pm appointment with the psych-glam rockers Telegram, a band partially under wraps at the moment, but their excellent songs and classic late 60s/early 70s look will surely be telegraphed before long. Meanwhile, The Shipwright’s Yard on Middle Street is a musical hub, with lawyers, labels, distribution, promotional and management companies all situated here, and every year they set up a dirty great sound system in the courtyard and parade a number of promising new acts including the slacker lo-fi pop of a slightly bemused looking Oscar and the very new I.AM.L, who have been taken on by Republic of Music’s management arm. Watch this space…
 
At the Brighthelm Centre, an increasingly important Great Escape stage, there was the very much in vogue Ezra Furman, who with his band mixes up a new wave Pixies vibe with Springsteen’s old school, big band rock’n’roll dynamics and in the process brought the house down, while later on in the Dome, the most unusual These New Puritans won over the audience with their brass heavy, emotive and intense classical meets experimental rock sound, this being their last ever show concentrating on last year’s acclaimed Field of Reeds album. Then, for me, the highlight of the day, and perhaps of the whole festival, the utterly likeable Aussie Courtney Barnett and her three piece. Her third and final show of The Great Escape, Barnett’s brilliant songs, deceptively mundane lyrics, stage presence and most of all the band’s raucous indie-pop was a perfect way in which slope off for the night, utterly drained, while the more hardened continued to party the night away at various hostelries and watering holes – late Friday night being the peak moment of the festival, where the streets are at its busiest and most vibrant.
 
Fresh, and somewhat invigorated for a final day’s battle, the Spiegeltent was a relatively calm oasis as Dizraeli & The Small Gods utterly engaged with their superb mélange of hip hop, beat poetry, jazz and scratch beats, culminating in a little bit of crowd surfing by frontman Dizraeli. Moving on to the Alternative Escape Beyond Retro venue – a vast vintage clothing and accessories emporium in the North Laine – hosts Common Tongues, overlooking the crowd, delivered another excellent, largely upbeat indie-folk set, while the intriguing Canadians Alvvays turned up at the new venue The Boutique, for their third set of the three day extravaganza, their dreamy indie pop is both big and spacious.
 
Pawws
Pawws
Back to the Spiegeltent, and local label Tru Thoughts signing Harleighblu engages the crowd during a power cut by singing unaccompanied, her Portishead meets soulful R’n’B voice is stunning. Over in the Spiegelhub, the esoteric dark-folk harmonies of Bridie Jackson & The Arbour, whilst beguiling, suffers from a lacklustre soundsystem, while Audio is host to the ferocious post-punk experimentalists, and wonderfully monikered, Girl Band; taut, gripping, full of ‘noise’ flourishes and yet grooving. Those three bands alone demonstrate the diversity of The Great Escape, an event that was once the domain of indie kids, but which now embraces a highly eclectic mix of styles and sounds, reflective of the increasingly fragmented yet creative new music scenes around the world.
 
Back at the Latest Music Bar (‘dumbly-named-but-actually-really-cool’ – NME), 80s electro pop throwback PAWWS are a pleasure, a little bit of Kraftwerk subtly undercutting the pop sheen.
 
And then on to the final straight with a visit to The Warren to see Scottish emo-rockers Twin Atlantic churn out some above average fare, and then finally I staggered to the Dome Studio Bar to see Bernard Butler’s new band Trans turn out an excellent after midnight set of dynamic guitar jams and psychedelic pop, despite Butler’s visible on stage irritation (technical or artistic hissy, who knows?).
 
Very much like a festival, with all acts rarely performing for more than 45 minutes, The Great Escape once again has shown itself to be a top-notch celebration of new music, acts playing in a wide variety of venues all within walking distance.
 
Reviewed by Jeff Hemmings
 
The Great Escape 2014

The Great Escape Festival is one of Europe’s largest citywide festivals and one of the most exciting moments on the calendar of any self-respecting Brighton music fan. It was the first time I’d had a wrist band for the festival, so with over four hundred acts to choose from I was glad to be writing for BrigtonsFinest.com with the clear goal of concentrating on bands from Brighton and the local area – it certainly made it easier to plan my schedule for the weekend. BrightonsFinest weekend began with the whole team meeting at the Spiegeltent on Wednesday evening for the Made in Brighton showcase. We were all pretty much unanimous in our praise for Yumi & The Weather, who really stood out in a line-up of four local bands alongside Beautiful Boy, Paperboy and Lovepark. You can read Frank's review of their show [here].

Thursday got off to a slow start for me, I wasn’t able to get into the festivities until the evening. I intended to start my night by catching Paul Thomas Saunders at St Mary's Church, as I was intrigued by [our interview with him] and keen to see the inside of a building on my doorstep that I’d walked past so many times. Unfortunately I missed Paul but still got to take a peek at the church while listening to the beautiful music of Luke Howard. Howard has recorded some stunning neo-classical piano pieces which match the instrument to a 10-piece group including traditional orchestral instrumentation alongside some gentle electronics. Back home he’s been nominated for the Australian Music Prize for his new album ‘Sun, Cloud’ and the cavernous acoustics of St Mary’s (which seems to actually be bigger on the inside like a TARDIS!) are a perfect match for such peaceful music. I couldn’t stay too long though or I would have become too relaxed for what I had planned!
 
I then passed through the festival hub at the Spiegeltent to catch the last couple of songs from Mighty Oaks, a four piece indie folk group from four different countries. They had some really nice harmonies, as advertised, but didn’t seem to be particularly innovative. This was just a stop-gap though as the main event for me was my Thursday night headliners TRAAMS who were playing at The Hope which led me, somewhat inevitably, to my first experience of Great Escape queuing!
 
I am L
I.am.L
I arrived about half an hour before the show began but there was already a large queue hugging the side of the building and growing down Queens Road. I joined at the back, having failed to read that there was a separate queue going to other way for delegates! Annoyingly when I got near the front of the regular queue the bouncer spotted my lanyard and golden wristband and promptly sent me to the back of the delegates queue – which seemed a little unfair as, although I was in the wrong queue, I had already waited twenty minutes! It was a minor bugbear though as I soon found myself squeezed into the back of the sweaty venue, missing maybe one or two songs.
 
TRAAMS are from just up the road in Chichester and are signed to local label Fat Cat. The line-up is that of a no frills rock three-piece: drums, bass and a singer-guitarist. The mesmeric, pulsating music they pump out has a real power and intensity that helps to raise them to another level. The backbone of the band comes from the drums and bass which are metronome steady: playing repetitive, relentless rhythms that caused the room to bob as one, despite the fact it was far too hot to dance and far too crammed to move about even if you wanted to. 

Friday

I started my Friday in the afternoon at the Republic of Music Showcase at The Shipwrights Yard, which is a little courtyard tucked away down an alley in the south lanes where Skint Records and Republic of Music have their offices. On such a windy day (on my way into town I spotted a snail blown off its trail) this little courtyard was a relief as it was both a suntrap and a wind-shield. The hidden location feels like it ought to be a well-kept secret, but this year there was a large buzzing crowd from the moment I arrived and I was there to check out a new local group I’d been told about who weren’t listed on the festival line-up.

When I arrived Beautiful Boy were setting up on the stage area, which looks a bit like a garage complete with a ladder on the back wall. I saw Beautiful Boy at the Made in Brighton showcase on Wednesday and their performance this afternoon did little to improve my opinion of them. A decent enough set of players but nothing particularly exciting in their material or arrangements. They were followed by a group called Oscar, who were also not listed in the main programme for the festival. These guys felt a little like they’d been let out of their starting blocks too early. A three piece, who reminded me at times of Blur: the singer (who is Oscar) had a voice like Damon Albarn when he’s crooning and looked a little like a young Alex James. There were some interesting elements to their sound, I particularly liked the chaotic and occasionally dissonant keyboards but they were relying on a little red stomp-box to provide the beats which was banjaxed by a faulty power adapter and the lack of a 9 volt battery. As a result the drums cut out several times and the set became truncated and confused. Better luck next time boys!
Next up were I.Am.L – the band I’d been told about (although I had misheard the name and was expecting to see a group called I Am Owl!). It was an early show for this group, a preview for a band recently signed to Republic of Music’s management and they showed a lot of promise. The band consisted of front-woman Laura (the ‘L’ in I.Am.L) and two female backing singers (one who also played percussion). Behind them were three guys on keyboards (with laptop backing tracks), a guitar and drums. They were a very accomplished group of players and the performance was impressive. Despite the slightly drab setting the three girls were very glam, in quite a witchy/gothic way and gave a very impressive, expressive show. You could easily imagine them taking this show on the road with some decent lighting and backdrops to suit the look of the group. On first listen I’d say they reminded me vaguely of Florence & The Machine, with very powerful vocals and dramatic musical arrangements, but I’d have to see them again to get a better handle on it. Definitely ones to look out for in the year ahead.
 
Esben
Esben and The Witch
They were followed by Esben and The Witch who were absolutely fantastic and easily the best band I’d seen so far on the day. It’s hard to describe but Esben and TRAAMS both had a stage presence and authenticity that really draws in a crowd. Another three piece, using traditional instrumentation but in an innovative way. EATW are very assured and their sound is clearly defined: they know what they do and they are good at doing it. They created an atmosphere that transported the listener out of that strange little courtyard to somewhere dark, broody and epic. Great arrangements, full of light and shade, you can see why they’ve been associated with Mogwai in the past. Definitely a band worth seeing live. 

I could have stuck around and caught The Wytches, another local group who are making waves with their neo-grunge sound, but I was hungry and hadn’t been too impressed when I saw them a few months ago so I took a little break before heading back into town. I began my evening shift at The Prince Albert as I had been intrigued by Love Zombies biography in the festival planner. They’re a London based power-pop/punk group, fronted by a diva-like American singer with a voice that’s not a million miles from Bonnie Tyler. I really enjoyed their set, which managed to cleave a mini moshpit from an initially unenthusiastic crowd – these guys were a lot of fun so I was glad I made a little detour to check them out.

Then I was back on the trail of local heroes and darted over the road to watch Fickle Friends, who I had heard of, but knew little about. The Green Door store was predictably rammed (the doorway into the venue space is a real bottleneck) but I managed to squeeze my way through to find some room to the left of the stage. It seemed like all the short people in the room had decided to stand together so I ended up with a rare uninterrupted view of the stage. These guys had a great sound with modern electronics matched to more traditional guitar band instrumentation. The sound reminded me a little of Foals (if Foals were happier) but they didn’t sound cheesy, or twee, which is a danger when you create music that seems so optimistic. They had a really positive and fun vibe and I’m looking forward to working my way through their recorded output when I get the chance. I don’t normally like synth/guitar pop – but these guys seemed more authentic than someone like Ellie Goulding and would gladly go and see them again. 
 
Syd
Syd Arthur
I kept my pace up and headed straight for The Dome Studio once Fickle Friends had finished to catch up with Syd Arthur. Syd Arthur are from Canterbury but they’ve been regular visitors to Brighton, often teaming up with local bands like The Sly Tones. I’ve seen them live several times in the past but things have picked up for the group recently, with some exciting stuff happening for them over in the States. I was keen to see how their sound has developed. I bumped into Eva Rose at the show and she may have felt differently but I was a little disappointed. A focal point of the band for me had always been Raven Bush (nephew of Kate) and his excellent effects-laden mandolin and violin playing. Tonight he spent most of the set playing an organ enhanced by his gigantic effects board. I don’t know if it was the room, the sound engineer or the bands choice but the gigantic reverb washed over everything, masking what a tight and intricate group they are. The drums seemed a mile away from the rest of the band and their new songs seemed to be lacking in the catchy vocal hooks of their earlier material. This may just be a case of unfamiliarity breeding contempt but I felt myself getting a little distracted by their fusion noodlings. The musicianship was impressive as ever but I left the show feeling a little under whelmed.
 
Next was the band I was probably most looking forward to seeing at the whole festival. Royal Blood have quickly emerged as one of Brighton’s most promising talents. They’ve come along way since appearing on Arctic Monkey’s drummer Matt Helders T-shirt (at this Corn Exchange show drummer Ben Thatcher wore a Tigercub T-Shirt – a local band we’ll be checking out asap)! Royal Blood have signed up with Arctic Monkeys management and have recently appeared on The Jools Holland Show despite only having released a couple of singles so far. I think this may be the first time I'd ever seen a live band at The Corn Exchange. What a beautiful room the Corn Exchange is and so gigantic. I managed to get myself right to the front of house, hovering just behind the ferocious moshpit, but I imagine to people at the back of the room the two-piece Royal Blood must have seemed remarkably small considering what a big sound they make. All the elements work perfectly in harmony, the drums are huge, Kerr’s vocal is fantastically melodic and the bass playing is really clever. If you’ve read [our interview] with the band you’ll find them reluctant to reveal the secret behind that sound. Having seen the group ‘live’ now I have a new theory but I’ll keep it to myself! These guys rock really hard and they command the stage with a good balance of humble wit – at one point singer Mike Kerr makes us all laugh by saying, “I thought this would be a good point to introduce the rest of the band. Everyone this is Ben!”

They are in their element tonight and seem really grateful to be given this opportunity. It’s great to see a band not only nailing it but really enjoying themselves. I couldn’t help myself either and by the end of the set I had actually joined the mosh-pit – something I hadn’t actively done for years. It feels like Royal Blood have unlocked the secret to rocking in a way that appeals to the masses. I think this is something we’ve been missing from the UK music scene for quite a long time and it’s amazing that it’s coming out of our little town.

Saturday

After an exhausting Friday I had a simpler plan for Saturday which started at the Brighton Centre’s East Wing to catch The Xcerts, who are from Aberdeen but now based in Brighton [read our interview here]. I was keen to see the band as well as check out the venue. When I was in my teens loads of bands came to the East Wing on their tours but it seems to have fallen out of use in recent years and I’d never actually seen a gig in there before. It’s a bit of a faceless space but with a decent rig and lights it becomes an ideal venue with a pretty huge capacity. The sort of venue we’re lacking in the centre of town so I wonder why it isn’t used more often. I’d not seen the Xcerts before, another classic three-piece guitar band. What struck me about The Xcerts, whose music isn’t particularly original, is how adorable they all are! They play melodic power pop with a heavy edge but they do it with huge grins on their faces and front man Murray Macleod is incredibly charming. It’s amazing how easily I find myself won over by bands who are able to share their enjoyment so well with the crowd. I sometimes like to think of this as The Snow Patrol Effect, (whose recordings I can’t stand) once I saw them live at a festival and found myself hypnotically drawn in with the rest of their following merely by the power of the singers charm offensive. Macleod with his long blond hair and winning smile reminds me of a young Tom Petty (rather than the Kurt Cobain I was expecting) and they have some great sing-a-long moments in a fine set of decent tunes. They’re a very accomplished band and certainly much more to my taste than Snow Patrol ever could be!
 

Fickle Friends
After The Xcerts I headed to The Spiegeltent again to see Dizraeli & The Small Gods. Dizraeli is an MC who has been playing on Brighton stages for many years, I’m familiar with his work with now defunct Brighton band Bad Science. This was my first time seeing The Small Gods, who match a turntablist with the instrumentation of a jazz three piece (double bass, drums and piano or viola) as well as the vocal and multi-instrumental talents of Cate Ferris, who has been long established as one of Brighton’s great solo artists. They play a combination of hip-hop, jazz and traditional English folk. The band seem to take a little time to find their groove and just as I’m starting to lose faith little magical moments begin to happen as Dizraeli, an excellent frontman, manages to tease some audience interaction out of the crowd. At the end of one song we suddenly find the whole room is singing along to a folky melody and on their final number Dizraeli has managed to get the whole room onside to catch him crowd surfing. As a rapper there’s a great deal of wit and intelligence in his lyrics and it’s great to see such a talented group of musicians innovating and experimenting with new styles. They’ve been charming festivals up and down the country and are well worth half an hour of your time if you spot them on a bill this summer.

The main event for me on Saturday evening was Elli Ingram at The Warren. I didn’t quite know what to expect from this Brighton born singer, but what I got was an incredible band, influenced by gospel and R’n’B and Elli, early in her career, is already well on her way to being a world class singer in this style. It’s not the sort of stuff I normally listen to but the band are fantastic and the songs are memorable. I particularly like her track about being a four foot gangster obsessed with Missy Elliott. Ingram has a lovely presence onstage and tells us some of the background to her songs before she performs them, which makes a ram-packed Warren seem extremely intimate tonight, especially when she points out her mother in the audience and makes a joke of how lost she seems to be in the music. The festival have brought a great sound and lighting setup to this pop up venue, which really elevates the show. The Warren is a really special venue and it’s only around for May during the festival. On the strength of Ingram’s show I find myself thinking about how great it would be if we could have some of these spaces running all year round.

I ended my Saturday disappointingly with a couple of acts at The Coalition. I went to see headliners Mazes, my girlfriend often plays me their single ‘Bodies’ so I was keen to see what they were like live. Unfortunately they were not on good form tonight and the sound in Coalition was a bit of a let-down. The bass was rattling the whole room and half the crowd was expecting the lights to start falling on their heads. I think a lot of the crowd had spilled out from failing to get in to see Future Islands at The Haunt due to a massive queue and they were not in good spirits! Mazes didn’t seem impressed by the engineering in the venue and the lack of refreshments they’d been offered and only played about 25 minutes of the 45 minutes they’d been advertised to play.
 
It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise fantastic few days of music. My overall my experience of the festival was very positive and better than I’d expected. I bumped into friends all over the festival and got all sorts of different feedback. With so many acts and so much on offer I think you have to make a good plan to get the most out of this sort of festival and it really is the sort of place where you ought to be on the lookout for great, new up-and-coming bands, rather than focusing entirely on seeing your favourite headliners. I met people who had spent their whole weekend drinking hip flasks in queues for shows they never entered but I also saw people who had discovered their new favourite bands. Luckily the The Great Escape Festival gives you lots of help in being able to organise yourself and to make the most of it, including the indispensable Great Escape app where you can plan your schedule on your smart phone. I actually had a much better time than I initially expected and I would recommend it to anyone.

Reviewed by Adam Kidd

Dizraeli and the small gods
 
Paperboy
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Yumi & The Weather
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Momotaro
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Hanna Georgas
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Smoove + Turrell
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AK/DK
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Paul Thomas Saunders
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Phox
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Prime Ministers
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Chloe Howl
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Telegram
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Ezra Furman
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These New Puritans
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Courtney Barnett
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Dizraeli & The Small Gods
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Common Tongues
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Harleighblu
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Bridie Jackson & The Arbour
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Girl Band
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PAWWS
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Twin Atlantic
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Trans
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Beautiful Boy
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TRAAMS
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Lovepark
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Luke Howard
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Mighty Oaks
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Esben and The Witch
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Love Zombies
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Fickle Friends
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Syd Arthur
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Royal Blood
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The Xcerts
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Cate Ferris
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Elli Ingram
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Mazes
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