Turning up at the press centre I catch the first glimpse of a celebrity. Howard Marks the famed cannabis dealer has been giving a talk to record industry types. Yes, the Great Escape Festival is more than a series of concerts, it’s a series of industry showcase events and discussions. A chance for people to ‘network’ and for all in the industry to pat each other on the back and exclaim how great they all are.
I’m offered a goodie bag full of random shite which is yet again proof of the way the record industry is going nowadays. Flyers and posters are trying to get me to see certain bands, while the record industry groups from abroad are proclaiming their towns and cities to be “where it’s at”. This event is more akin to SXSW in Austin, Texas than a traditional festival. It’s also become a gauge of this winter’s must have records with bands such as the Kooks, The Gossip, and the Klaxons all making their name at the festival in previous years.
Almost every single bar and club in the seaside resort of Brighton has been taken over for this city-based festival. Gigs seem to be happening at other random places such as the Udderbelly tent (a large tent which looks like a lopsided purple cow), in the street and at the funky-bus (more on those later).
Friday 18th May
The first act I manage to catch is a band called Undercut who are playing a short acoustic set at the Audio club. It’s relatively annoying that many acts are playing other sets which are unannounced. I guess this is part of the appeal – you could be drinking in a bar and the Magic Numbers could turn up and belt out a few tunes on the recorder or something. However, it does mean that you have to be on the ball to see surprise gigs – much of this is based on rumours and over-heard conversations in bars. Undercut, who are from Bristol, played a set of indie-rock based music, albeit acoustically. They were complaining that it was their first ever acoustic set and to be fair to them it did show. I’m sure that they are better than this set proved.
Next up, in the downstairs to the same venue were the Pistolas, an unsigned band from Norwich who should be the next Klaxons. Their music was very similar, dance based pop-punk music (I’m not using the term “New Rave”, so fuck off). The club had been hastily transformed into a gig venue with a temporary stage. The band had also tried to create a buzz by putting posters up all over the place, “PISTOLAS SAY LOVE THE DANCE FLOOR” was now being pushed into everyone’s faces. The five-piece were imploring everyone to have some fun and a dance and it worked a treat. In my opinion they may have made a few friends tonight which, given the amount of record industry types at the event, may lead to them getting a deal.
The Ripps were the next on my revised itinerary. Walking between the venues was difficult in the blistering Brighton sea-front wind which was so forceful that my planned visit to the funky bus to see a brilliantly named Finnish band called Eternal Erection was thwarted as they cancelled their open-top bus-based gig.
Playing in the basement of a swanky bar, the Ripps were presented by the excellent Artrocker magazine. The Ripps have recently released an album to small critical acclaim and their single ‘Vandals’ was well received by this intimate crowd. Playing punky-poppy tunes they were extremely tight and musically sound. What they do lack in my book is a little originality. However, whatever they do lack in this department they more than make up for in energy.
I had to leave before the end of the set seeing as I had to try and find another venue. One of the problems with a city-based festival is the distance between them. The festival also didn’t help things by having so many acts playing at the same times. I guess it allows for the venues to remain relatively small and for the intimate nature of the festival to prevail. However, by the end of the evening, there were many fans queuing outside to try and get inside to see their favourite bands – in theory it could lead to unhappy fans queuing all night to get to see the one band they came to see. But therein lies the beauty of the festival, you can go into some random bar/venue knowing that you’re going to see some good music – you just won’t have heard of them!
Making my way over to the Pavilion Theatre in the centre of town was an easier affair, the wind had died down and I was only stopped in my tracks when I realised the queue to get into the Theatre was extremely long. Willy Mason was headlining the gigs there tonight, and many had come in advance to try and secure a place to see the ‘next Bob Dylan’ or whatever tag it is they apply to Mason nowadays. Fortunately, my delegate pass meant I was able to join a smaller queue and I soon got inside.
The first band I saw at the Pavilion was an Icelandic based band called Lay Low. This was their first gig in the UK and what a treat it was. Swampy, slow country-blues fronted by a woman who has an amazing voice (it seems that half of what makes Bjork’s voice so quirky is the fact that she is singing with an Icelandic accent – it’s not only her that sounds like that). Addressing the crowd in broken English the lead singer told us that she had visited Brighton before on holiday and that it was the first time she ever got drunk. She did a much better job at communicating through song, however. Sounding at times like the broodier songs of Ryan Adams, their music was slow, downbeat, melancholy but always stunningly beautiful. Their set was well received and a straw-poll of those around me suggested that she had won over the majority of the crowd.
Next up was Canadian act Patrick Watson. He was there as part of Canada’s official delegation. Indeed, many countries had special events and groups of artists that they were helping break. For some reason Canada was out in force this year, perhaps on the back of it’s new hip image thanks to acts like Arcade Fire. He made a lot of electronic noise which quite often lead into sweeping piano. Many of his songs would be perfect for a mobile telephone advert if he decided to go down that financially lucrative but soul destroying route. Although the band were excellent and many weird instruments were played, it was his voice which really stood out. It was warm, soothing and soaring in all the right places. In many respects their sound was reminiscent of a downbeat Guillemots song.
Moving round the corner to the Corn Exchange I got to see my two final acts of the night. The Heights were a run of the mill indie band who bored me to tears. I’m sorry Heights fans, but I couldn’t even understand the hype surrounding this band. I took the opportunity of this band being on stage to get myself a drink, where my delegate pass, strung around my neck, made me an obvious target for stupid drunken students who seem to make the majority of the festival crowd up. I was taught all about the theory of philosophy at the bar and also asked if I knew where to score some coke (I must admit this did make me feel like the coolest person in the bar at the time).
Once the Heights were over, I moved to the front to catch perhaps the best post-punk band there is out there, Art Brut. The band came on stage to much applause and the now familiar chants of, “Art Brut, Top of the Pops”. The band may not be the most popular in the UK but they do have a loyal and devoted following, which is much more than many bands can claim. Struggling with his tie for most of the night, lead singer Eddie Argos was on fine form. He introduced new song, ‘St Pauli’ as a “football anthem”. During ‘Modern Art’ he even disappeared from the stage to emerge just a few feet from me towards the right he then barged his way through to to mosh with everyone in sight at the front. A real punk-rock moment.
A real stand-up comedian, Argos rallied the crowd against Virgin Megastore’s policy of having computer games at the front of the shop and declared that we should all go away and form a band to reverse music’s decline. During, ‘Emily Kane’ he ordered the crowd to stop thinking about ex-boyfriends and girlfriends claiming that it was an “anti-love song”. Unfortunately, the late-night train service put on for the festival was at twenty past 11pm and I had to leave the gig. It was an enthralling and completely entertaining way for me to finish my first night on the South coast.
Saturday 19th May
Saturday started in the same way as it did for me on Friday. I couldn’t find the funky bus despite slightly better weather and I was in the upstairs area of Audio. Some nice-looking lad was playing a kind of rock-modern R’n’B combo which to be frank was as dull as watching paint dry. However, this random encounter led me to bumping into some London acquaintances which meant that I would have some company for at least some of the night. Trooping downstairs to the basement room of the Audio bar/club complex, I eventually ended up staying here all night.
Sex Panther were the first band on stage. This unsigned band from Perth, Australia is made up of four girls who all exude a certain sexuality on stage whilst maintaining a brilliant punk etiquette. These are not your average Australian visitors to the UK. Playing classic punk rock, they at times seemed to be taken over by the music. Well received by the crowd, this band are currently unsigned. If there’s any justice in the world, it probably won’t remain that way for long.
Staying in the Antipodes, New Zealand sensation Die! Die! Die! were next on stage. The band have made quite a name for themselves in the UK over the last few months. Playing a mix of post-punk and indie music, they are infectious and loud. The lead singer seemed to take exception at the barriers put in place to separate the crowd from the band and enjoyed opening up the floodgates, walking into the crowd and climbing all over the stage apparatus. They played possibly the most energetic set of the festival. The final song saw two people come on stage to bang the drums as the music built up to an amazing frenzy of noise. Sweat seemed to be pouring from the pores of all those on stage and in the crowd too. Perhaps the most surprising act of the festival so far.
After the amazing energy of Die! Die! Die!, the Prayers came as a little bit of a let-down. The band are from San Diego, California and were most usefully described as “other” in the official programme of the festival. What it really was what I would call a mix of indie and frat-rock. It was insipid, dull and boring, however, this was probably as much to do with the previous act on stage than the band themselves.
Finally, one of the most-talked about bands at the festival, My previous plan to go and see British Sea Power had been overtaken by more pressing needs such as drinking as much as possible. As is often the way at a festival, the moment can render all plans meaningless. There were many talked about bands at the weekend that I didn’t and realistically couldn’t get to see including the Gallows, CSS and the Maccabees. I’m just pleased that I managed to see one of the bands that many punters both at the Festival and reviewers have both been raving about: Mumm-Ra.
Hailing from the seaside resort of Bexhill-on-Sea, near Hastings in East Sussex, just up the coast from Brighton, the band have been quietly making some noises in certain quarters thanks to their energetic live shows. Tonight was no different. Coming to the stage, the crowd was made up of mostly young guys and gals and it was frenzied from the start. Their music almost defies categorisation: a little bit of punk, a little bit of the Klaxons, a little bit of Maximo Park, a little bit of the Gossip. It’s all very confusing, but it works more than a treat. Like Die! Die! Die! they are prone to entering the crowd to continue to sing and get the crowd going. The band have recently released their debut album, Move in Threes, and it is one that I will definitely be checking out after this performance.
The only problem with this festival is that there is simply too much going on! There are so many bands which are talked about, so many secret gigs (I witnessed the Noisettes busking in the street late on Saturday night), so many random events that it becomes all too over-whelming. Indeed this leads to slight feelings of annoyance, once the event is over. The NME have been banging on about the Gallows since Brighton and I missed them. Twice. While I would have loved to see the Maccabees it wasn’t possible unless I missed some of the many other talented acts I witnessed over the two days.
But one thing that is for sure is that there is no shortage of talent on the UK and European music scenes. No matter which venue people will have turned up to, they would have caught some great music from some talented acts. At only £35 odd quid a ticket, this festival is a bargain and if you’re a fan of new music there is no reason why you shouldn’t get yourself down to Brighton in 2008.