it’s great escaping. tales from a new music festival

The Great Escape, Brighton

16-18 May 2013

This year is the 50th anniversary of the film The Great Escape. It’s also the perfect name for this festival. It fits how you feel as you leap your desk to musical freedom, feeling like Steve McQueen with your imaginary motorbike under you. It also, ahem, describes the tunnels that most punters wish they could use to get into the over-subscribed venues. But with the promise of freedom – 350 new bands in a cool seaside city – the crowds are inevitable, and at only £35 for the cheapest ticket this is a festival that could do its own half century.

I saw 30 shows in 3 days. Count ‘em. Here are some of the highlights.

Day 1

Highlight of the first day was Dingus Khan at The Hope. A shirts off, knuckle dragging assault on the senses best summarised as brainless brilliance from Braintree (really). This is the band Supergrass could have been, if they had three drummers, two basses, guitar, mass vocals, electric ukulele, and better tunes.

Grin-generating melodies like ‘Bag for life’, ‘My love lasts forever like a plastic flower’, and ‘Knifey spoony’ are accompanied by crushingly heavy backing, gurning and total lunacy on stage and off. There isn’t much let-up – this is a band that sees TGE’s 30 minute slot as a challenge. Even initially slow songs like ‘Ambulance’ and ‘Made a list’ – the latter with a lovely whistling refrain – offer only temporary respite before the drummers begin their battery, someone snogs someone, strings break, and mics get stuffed into mouths. Utter genius.

Earlier on day 1 was a pleasant afternoon in the sun at the Noisescape stage, sponsored by Brighton Noise and featuring a bunch of quality local bands.

AK/DK were the highlight – a very dancey set driven by two drummers, sequencers and what looked like a gigantic Moog. Imagine Interstellar Overdrive gone techno, complete with lyrics like ‘One of these days I’m gonna cut you into little pieces’. Black Black Hills offered a touch of class – alt-rock theatrics with swampy, reverb drenched tunes.

Of a trilogy I saw at The Mesmerist, My new favourite tribe were most promising. 80s Postcard-era pop, spruced up with clever beats and bouncy basslines. They didn’t look like they were enjoying it very much, by the crowd they’d pulled in were having a great time, including me. The other bands were Plant Plants – groovy electronics; and Kasket – um, imagine a Jesus Jones B-side, and you can decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Balthazar played late at The Albert, stretching the venue’s French theme for the day a little with their Belgian-ness. Five lovely Belgians, that is, with soaring harmonies and superbly crafted tunes who wigged out like a folky Radiohead. Recommended.

Elsewhere: We Were Evergreen at The Hub – sunny summer smiles all round to the jangly French folkpoppers. Murmansk at The Green Door Store – cool Finnish rock and roll, heavily indebted to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Blackeye at The Hope – Bubblegum punk pop with awkward and self-consciously English vocals. Dinosaur Pile Up – also at The Hope. Three word review: Dinosaur Pile Of. To expand: retro/repro-grunge, of the bland and uninspiring kind.

Day 2

The second day – and the rest of my year I have no doubt – was all about Young Fathers, my band of the festival.

An industrial hip hop outfit (from Scotland!?) with a thing for TV on the Radio is a poor description, but the best I can do – they’re on Anticon which may tell you a thing or two about their unpigeonholeability. Three rappers/singers and a Mark Kermode look alike on floor toms and laptop (I’m really not selling this am I) – it was a breath taking performance, simultaneously soulful and uncompromisingly militant. That’s it, militant and soulful. Brutal beats and thrillingly physical performances from the front men – aggressive and high energy dancing, shadow boxing, audience stare-downs, and choreographed accapella. I found myself selling their merch after the show at The Pavillion, already a fan.

Escaping Alarm Bells’ sub-Rolo Tomassi impression, I found myself – in the middle of the afternoon mind – in a dancehall party in the Komedia basement. The Heatwave With Lady Chann are a kind of bashment Jive Bunny, who whipped up a crowd of whiteys with a medley of carnival classics from the UK, Brazil and Jamaica. I suddenly had a vision of the future. I was in an old peoples’ home, surrounded by a fellow old ravers sipping tea, and this lot were behind the decks. Comforting.

One Inch Badge had a do at Smack, and I went along. Brighton band Kins were well nice – grounded in solid floor toms, singer Thomas Savage’s voice sounds something like Peter Silberman’s from The Antlers – and the result, with bass and keyboards, is jacking pop with momentum as well as an XX sense of space.

The big draw however were The Orwells, playing a meeja industry warm up to their evening show at The Haunt – Chicagoan high energy punk pop. You could hear the chequebooks rustling in industry pockets. They’re young! They’re dumb! They’re full of hit singles! The singer flicks his long blond do, rolls his eyes like a pre-pubescent David Lee Roth, and they’ve clearly listened to Cheap Trick as well as The Dickies and Mudhoney…hell, if I wasn’t a mean spirited old hack I’d sign ‘em.

The other highlight on day 2 was The Allah-Las, unpopping a bottle of surf era Californian sunshine on a Pavillion audience. These four blokes traverse a narrow range of nostalgic late 50s/early 60s influences from skiffle to surf and back again, and make it all sound effortless. ‘Catamaran’ and instrumental ‘Sandy’ come together in particular – and you can almost feel the sand between your toes.

Back in the day, this would have been music to stick it to The Man with. Now – apart from when the drummer sings horribly out of tune on ‘Trying to find a love that’ll stay’ – it’s safe and easy listening. Even the brief excitement of an audience member invited on stage is deemed too much, and she’s ejected by security after only 30 seconds in singer Miles Michaud’s company. A smooth and polished set is not necessarily a bad thing, but I like live performances to feel a bit more, well, alive.

Elsewhere: Swim Deep struggled to get their androgynous Deerhunter/Peace style indie surfrock across to a hall full of Klaxxons fans at The Corn Exchange – definitely worth checking out on their own terms. The Enchanted Forest sang in Polish at The Hub, which was intriguing to hear – Poland is this year’s nation sponsor of TGE – but otherwise their folk pop was too twee and slight to make much impact.

Day 3

Parquet Courts achieved lift off at The Haunt. That’s not easy at TGE where most bands are new, and people are often in ‘who are this lot, never hear of them, let’s see if I’m impressed and maybe I’ll dance next year’ mode. With a hyped up album in their favour, the crowd at The Haunt was self-selecting, and the Courts responded by playing very fast and very very loud against the clock. The lesser spotted moshpit – that rare TGE beast – was in full effect, lit up by post-punk terrace chant-alongs made by the kind of honest, sweaty lads who look a lot like you and me.

Moshing, stage-diving, tinnitus… highlights essentially the same as the highlights on the record: ‘Borrowed time’, ‘Master of my craft’, ‘Light up gold II’, ‘Disney P.T.’ (what a classic EP it would have been instead of a full length album). New songs played were slower and more droning. ‘Stoned and starving’ finished up, guitars were bounced off amps and the floor, breaths were taken. Phew.

Earlier the day had started in a much more genteel manner at the Komedia with WALL. Sipping Red Bull ‘as a hangover cure’, WALL created drum-free, blissed-out and vaguely dubby melodies. Then Luke Sital-Singh made subtle and self-assured hurting love songs on voice and guitar or piano – the kind of singer/songwriter Ben Howard hopes to be, a gorgeous husky voice and a real understanding of dynamics. Music for couples to cry to.

And as for those Norwegians Highasakite, well. They have the temerity to come over here with their generous domestic social security policy and high standards of living and play music that sounds better than many of our own kids, weakened from a life depending on the trickle-down economy and the bins behind Poundland.

Their high-priced lager is cold comfort – from the off they’re polished and engaging. Zither, keyboards, drums and French horn layer on driving beats and voices like a bunch of flippin’ Scandinavian spirits calling down the fjords. It may not be fair, but this lot are good.

The Next Big Thing (you read it here!) Eliza and the Bear were playing at St Mary’s Church in the early evening and revelling in their surroundings and the buzz. They’re riding on Mumford & Sons’ coat tails alright, but their uplifting folky pop adds brass and electrics promises to get the summer festival crowds pogoing. Not my cuppa, but they’re going to be huge. And no animals get hurt.

Eagulls are worth a special mention. I met the guitarist after kicking over his lager outside Coalition – he was very nice about it – and I learned they’d driven down from Durham to Brighton in 3.5 hours (allegedly – legal Ed.)…something that made sense when I saw the speed they play. 110 mile an hour (allegedly – etc) punk rock…every chorus sounding like ‘Fuck Off’ in the mouth of their Ian Curtis-alike singer…an unpretentious, raw hit of channelled melody and nervous energy. Hit last chord, turn round, start packing up for the long drive back…

Elsewhere: Jagwar Ma at The Haunt – twin Americans all tassels, cleavage, chains and Girlschool-meets-White Stripes rawk and roll. Coming on stage to Led Zep shows the bravado on display here – unfortunately their music just didn’t live up to it. The Beards at The Hub – Ozzie guys with beards singing about beards in a School of Rock kind of way. Where TGE’s 30 minute curfew comes into its own. Sample chorus: “I was born with a beard, I live with a beard, I’ll die with my pride…and my beard’. You can fill in the rest yourself. Cheatahs at Coalition – file with Dinosaur Pile Up in the retro grunge pop section. Young Fathers again, at The Brighthelm Centre…plagued by a horrible PA and no lights they still gave it everything – another incredible performance to top things off with.

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