With an apparent administrative cock up with dates to deal with, The Great Escape was a week earlier than normal, very soon after Easter and the Labour Day Bank Holiday. Would this have an affect? Would there be less sun and less people? Well, when you’re living in a highly changeable climate, but with the dark clouds of Brexit looming larger than ever, you’d be forgiven in thinking the party might not get started.
But it’s not called The Great Escape for nothing, an escape from reality, from the pressures and insecurities of work, the pressures of a close-to-boiling-point political and social atmosphere, for punters and music industry delegates alike, come rain or shine, No Deal or a confirmatory referendum. Whad’ya fancy? Visceral post punk? Harmonising folk, indie thrash or arty electronica? Maybe some some blissful neo-soul or rapturous r’n’b? Now in its 14th year, TGE has it all in spades, with 400 plus bands and artists from around the globe, ready to show punters and industry bods alike, what they can offer in terms of the live experience. And every year TGE claim it to be the biggest and best. But who really knows, except to say that I for one had another great time, feasting on some great new music, for three long days and nights, checking out exciting new talent with like-minded souls.
The Welsh having been coming here for many years now, via BBC Horizons/Gorwelion, the Welsh version of BBC Introducing. And like the Aussies, they seem to punch above their weight, being home to an extraordinary amount and range of artists, covering everything from looping nu-soul (Kizzy Crawford) to working class grit (Jack Perrett). And then there was Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard. In lead singer Tom Rees they have a star, a la Jagger, complete with the camp moves. But, the boy is a genuine talent, a multi-instrumentalist, who started the band as a side project to his main band at the time, Tibet.
Not only did the band travel from Wales that morning, but Tom was called in to drum for fellow Welsh band Rainbow Maniac, who were first on at the un-rock’n’roll time of 12.30, having also worked the previous night as a sound engineer. But when your young and full of beans, nothing can get in the way, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard still able to summon up a blistering show, packed with top notch melodies, blazing riffs and stomping beats. Sweating buckets on the stage, the youthful four-piece blazed through some of their best songs including current single ‘Late Night City’, along with their fashion anthem, ‘Double Denim Top’ (Rees and guitarist Zac White were both resplendent in the blue stuff, top to toe). Without the flares, but with added swing and panache, they were a perfect way to get things going early on the Thursday. Indeed, they went on to do two further shows that day, the mayhem levels ratcheted up on each occasion.
The Murder Capital have been on my hit list for quite some time, the brooding, Irish quintet riding a wave of emotionally taut and hard hitting post punk, following in the wake of modern trailblazers Idles, a band who have so brilliantly cut a swathe through a dangerously dull UK indie landscape. Thinking it would be very difficult to get into the very small Prince Albert, it helps to know the manager of said venue, who sneaked me in at exactly the moment they struck up for an awesome 30 minute showcase, full of menace, high on atmosphere. Taking their cue from the likes of Joy Division, their musical intensity is total, besuited lead singer James McGovern prowling the stage and eyeing up the audience, like a gangster from some bygone East End club. But their superficial belligerence is underscored by vulnerable songs, in particular the stunning ‘On Twisted Ground’, which sees McGovern dewy-eyed towards the end, barely able to contain the emotional onslaught this song, and others contain. Tight and precise, with rumbling bass, piercing guitars, clear and strong vocals, and the theater of the frontman, all add up to one of the best new bands around.
Australia are having a whale of a time, musically speaking, and with Sounds Australia the lead international partner this year, it was an opportunity to see what else the Aussies have up their sleeve. Nice Biscuit (yes, named after the classic biscuit) were one of those visiting bands who most knew very little about, with only a couple songs out there on the web. Local promoters Acid Box’s interest was piqued enough when they popped down to Portsmouth a few days prior, to catch them play, eventually inviting them to perform at their Alternative Escape showcase, on the Saturday. But this was their first ever show in Brighton. And while this six piece apparently have a diverse locker of songs at their disposal, today they went down the psychedelic krautrock route, with the two frontwomen and band donning faintly ludicrous space-cowboy outfits (they dress up differently for each show apparently). Mesmerising grooves abound, such as on the excellent ‘Captain’, where swirling synths, taut bass, choppy grooves, distorted lead guitar, and angelic harmonies coalesce to trippy effect, while new single ‘Digital Mountain Sparrow’ is a 60s-vibed pop psychedelic confection. Sugar and spice and all things nice biscuit, you could say…
Norway are also home to a rising number of really interesting alt-pop acts, spearheaded by new sensation Sigrid. Esteemed local label Bella Union were suitably impressed to take on Broen, releasing their debut album I <3 Art in 2017. Combining elements of R’n’B, rap, soul, jazz, improvisation, psych, dub and electronica, and like so many of today’s forward-thinking musicians, Broen are an arty proposition, helped along by one of the most unique guitarists I have heard in a long time, unique guitarist in the form of Hans Hulbækmo, one who doesn’t simply ‘play’ his chosen instrument, but who uses it to create interesting sounds, alternatively attacking and stroking it. They also have a tuba player in the band, and that combined with the trippy visuals supplied by local lightman Innerstrings added up to an invigorating late Saturday afternoon workout.
The Beach venue is proving to be an excellent addition to the festival, a small complex of stages, bars and food outlets, a sort of mini-festival within a festival, and all literally by the sea. The sound has improved too, after a dodgy first outing last year, something which the unfeasibly young post punkers Black Country, New Road capitalised on, to deliver a brilliant performance in front of a packed crowd. Again, with little in the way of previous – just the one single, the mutating ‘Athen’s, France’ so far via Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label – ths six-piece are both a self-deprecating and irony-laden lot (and arty, of course) describing the track as, “a spectacular return to bad form; a romantic encounter, and a chronic fear of intercourse”.
Maybe. But to these ears, Black Country, New Road are playfully cynical, intellectual post-punkish prog mutators, in lyric and music, the singing guitarist referencing all sorts of things, including an ad-lib about this very festival itself, in intense, warbling, tones, while the sax player looks straight on, cool and confident looking. It’s where Gang of Four meets Rip, Rig & Panic via King Crimson, and any band that can somehow successfully fuse klezmer-ska with lslackercore (as they do on one song), well, the world is their oyster.
What a blast TGE was. Yes, I have to endure countless conversations and opinions about what THEY think about it all (usually negative and/or ill-informed). But if you like your alternative new music, there really is no better way to spent less than a hundred quid. Not only did I see the above, but special name checks must go to Brighton’s alt-rockers Penelope Isles, on the verge of releasing their debut album via Bella Union; new Brighton post-punk band Zooni, Dutch psych-kraut-Jonathan Richman fusioneers Lewsburg, the outstanding 70s harmony’n’folk prog siblig act Balien, from New York, Aussie glam-punkers A Swayze & The Ghosts, Norway’s Bjorkeseque harmonising threesome I See Rivers, Excellent Northerner nu-folkie Amy May-Ellis, the raucous indie punks Bad Animal from Canada, Isle of Wight pop-psychers Plastic Mermaids, metal-pop duo SUN from the USA, and tip for the top alt-indie foursome Black Midi. Oh, and I even decided to go back in time to catch to catch a bit of James Bay, returning to Brighton at short notice to release a new EP ‘oh,my messy mind’ that very day. Not exactly cutting edge, but hey, you can’t have everything!
Although still billed as “the festival for new music”, The Great Escape Festival continues to grow exponentially year on year. The introduction of The Beach stages last year means it’s becoming a legitimately huge draw for both festival crowds and bands alike, and this year so the likes of Foals, Fat White Family and Anna Calvi graced the festival as well as secret sets from mega acts such as James Bay. Away from the headline worthy names, however, there was still much to salivate over lower down the bill with many proving they’re no doubt about to reach the stratosphere. Here are some of the finest sets from the newest of names.
Signed to The Maccabees’ Felix White’s YALA! Records (home to Brighton’s The Magic Gang, as well as rising stars FEET), Talk Show’s set stands out as one of the most dynamic and thrilling of the entire three day bonanza. With just one single to their name, the excellent 2-minute plus stimulator ‘Fast and Loud’ – that sounds as stirring, provoking and wild in the live sphere as it does on record – it’s really frontman Harrison Swann who is the star of the show. A wickedly talented frontman who owns every inch of the huge Beach stage, it’s his passion and charisma that made Talk Show the standout performers against the likes of hype bands Black Midi and Black Country, New Road who graced the stage after them.
Quite possibly the most exciting band in the world right now, South London collective WOOZE performed a myriad of sets across the weekend to thousands of excitable music fanatics. Their set at a rammed Coalition was certainly a highlight of the weekend as they presented their debut EP what’s on your mind? to the sweaty nightclub. A band like no other, their spiky sounds seems to weld the worlds Sgt Pepper-era Beatles alongside the MTV-tinged colours of DEVO with relative ease, as the likes of ‘Cousin Paul from Paddington’ and ‘Ladies Who Lunch With Me’ bounced off every corner of Coalition like whirring neon lights.
At this point in time, it’s remarkable that VC Pines, AKA Jack Mercer, was once the frontman of indie band The Carnabys. Under his new guise, he’s showcasing the sort of musicality and soulful attitude that didn’t look possible from the Twickenham quintet. Now signed to Fierce Panda, VC Pines exhibited his debut EP Indigo with aplomb as the likes of ‘Garden of the Year’ and ‘Vixen’ sounded beautifully fresh and swirled with a comfortably wonderful warmth. Meanwhile, his cover of the Pixies iconic ‘Where Is My Mind?’ completely changed the tone – and indeed meaning – of the classic number. One of the sets of the weekend, for sure, VC Pines is bringing a sense of sophistication and soul to the world of indie music.
Without a doubt the most euphoric set of the evening, Confidence Man are already reaching legendary status both on and off record. Anticipating a classic after their incredible 3AM slot at Primavera Sound Festival last summer, their return to The Great Escape Festival blew that expectancy out of the water with a cataclysmic bang. With album cuts ‘C.O.O.L. Party’, ‘Better Sit Down Boy’ and ‘Boyfriend’ all carrying the type of weight that makes even the most shy of dispositions lose their inhibitions, the bands sheer sense of theatrics, style and fun is enough to entertain everyone on the planet. Bring on album number two!
One of the finer qualities of The Great Escape Festival is their iconic late night shows. A place where everyone is a little looser, Glasgow quintet proved to be the perfect band for the occasion as their manic brand of pop shook the very interior of Brighton’s Horatios, and indeed, the even smaller Richmond for the Alternative Escape. Creating a frenzied and intense storm of sounds, the band are an exciting and tight live proposition while latest single ‘My Pop Sensibilities’ harks back to the art-pop of Sparks quite brilliantly.