The Great Escape Festival
18th - 20th May 2006 - Brighton
The Great Escape is a new music festival being organised by The Barfly. Essentially it's a hopefully annual attempt at an English version of the Texas South By Southwest music festival. Around 180 bands played at 18 venues over the three days, and I did my best to see as much as possible. A quick word for the bands I didn't get a chance to see, Electric Soft Parade & Brakes (who I gave a miss having seen them both before) couldn't have failed to be superb, and from the reports I heard were indeed superbly superb.
I spent Thursday at Zap, usually a club but transformed into an intimate location (like most of the venues) for the weekend. First up, The Seal Cub Clubbing Club. Much like British Sea Power (more of them later), they make crazy guitar music which you never quite know what it's going to do. I've seen them before, and they impressed me enough then to make me return tonight. They are perhaps an acquired taste, and are unlikely to have much commercial success, but for those who like their guitar music with something like a, dare I say it, prog element, they are worth giving a try.
Next up one of the many many Brighton bands playing over the weekend, The Tenderfoot. They are equally as good as the likes of Elbow & Grandaddy, whom they sound not dissimilar to. However they've failed to make much impact so far, despite their debut album Save The Year being simply superb. They seemed a little uncomfortable about their future, and seemed sure that nobody could possibly have come to see them specifically. They are misled; this was a great performance which the audience thoroughly enjoyed. Their songs are catchy and intense and deserve a larger audience.
Finally for today were the local kings, British Sea Power, playing the first of two gigs this weekend, with an acoustic performance to follow. They've always been eccentric and crazed in their songs, although second album Open Season was more tuneful and better for it. The played a classic set with Please Stand Up & Remember Me the highlights which REALLY got the crowd going. They sadly had to cut their set short due to an irritatingly early venue curfew, which prompted a good humoured stage invasion which the band seemed to relish. The usual lines of branch wavers were missing, however one man had completely "tree-ed" himself, climbing up to stand behind the band for the final song. The guitarist launched himself into the crowd at the end, and everybody left rather sweaty but rather happy.
We then headed to The Pav Tav where SCCC & BSP were in charge of "the decks". There was also a live performance from Canadians Holy Fuck. Though their name might put some off, this would be a grave mistake. With a drummer, a guitarist, and two members switching between an assortment of keyboards and effects peddles, they make some wonderful electronic songs. It's properly live, with none of your modern laptop rubbish, and sounds simply fantastic. You REALLY (is that overuse of capitalisation yet?) need to see this band if you can. A great end to the first night.
An early start Friday saw me jumping the queues at Zap with my press pass (thanks Stay Gold press!) to see the only band playing at that time, Les Incompetents, who are, of course, English. They jumped around energetically, but sadly didn't have the same level of tunes as enthusiasm. Nothing "bad", just a little on the unoriginal sounding.
Next on were Howling Bells, possibly the best band I saw all weekend. The singer Juanita's voice is haunting and captivating. And their songs were awesome as well. They have picked up some press, but I was expecting something quite standard, however this wasn't the case. Jaw droppingly great, they are yet another "must see" live act. It's just a shame they only had a short 20-ish minute set. Never mind, it was time to brave the rain to head for Hanbury Ballrooms. Despite living it Brighton, I hadn't quite realised how deceptively far it actually is across town to some venues.
So, thoroughly soaked, I arrived just in time for The Delilahs. Having loved their latest single Let's Tango, I was looking forward to this 3-piece all female Swiss band. Of course, I wasn't disappointed. We got 30 mins of sexy dirty thumping rock'n'roll, the kind of which you can never have enough. Definitely worth filing in the "ones to watch" pile. But no rest for the wet, it was back across town to Audio, where I caught the end of The Heights. They seemed like a fairly average indie band, likely to get swallowed up in amongst the huge numbers of up and coming British bands. But they are still a little on the young side, so plenty of time to prove me horribly horribly wrong. With enough running done for one day (and me wondering how much more hay fever you could possibly pick up in the rain) I stayed on for the happiest band of the weekend, Captain. With more female power in the shape of their singing keyboardist who dueted with their male singing guitarist to create a lovely sound. They seem to have a shit load of pop hits at the ready, of the singalong-happy-jump-around variety. But don't let me lead to you think they don't have bags of variety, and can go emotional, epic, or crazy as they wish. A band literally very happy doing their own thing.
Finally for tonight were Sheffield's Milburn, who, as they said themselves on stage, are "apparently the new Arctic Monkeys". Which they are. They sound uncannily similar. It's perhaps a shame that Arctic Monkey have broken through, otherwise you might think "Oo, there's nobody quite like this around right now, they could do quite well". Sadly they are perhaps destined to live in their shadow. But they have quality of their own to share, and a similar way with their lyrics. Essentially whichever of the lovers/haters category you fall into for their soundalikes, you're likely to also fall into for this band. Sadly with a finals exam the next day (who needs revision when you have music!) there was no time to hunt for a good club night and it was off to bed after another evening of quality live entertainment.
The final day began at legendary titchy venue The Freebutt, where Dirty Little Faces kicked things off. A classic guitar band, with signs of all the required influences that forging this path requires, The Beatles, The Jam etc. etc. up to today's such as The Strokes. Which is pretty much what the programme said, good pigeonholing! A nice new band, with talent and tunes aplenty. Whether they can make an impact with what is, although enjoyable, not enough of a new edge to perhaps make them stand out.
Next were Hushpuppies at Engine Rooms, the most average band of the weekend. Perhaps if I hadn't seen so many great bands I would have found them a bit more exciting. Sadly they didn't do much to make me really remember what they really sounded like. Oh wait, I remember, they sounded "average" didn't they. What more can I say. I had by now become used to spending the weekend smelling of smoke and sweat. So it made a change to visit the next venue, the Red Roaster, which, as the name suggests, is actually a coffee shop. But not one turned completely into a music venue, it was still selling its usual range of coffees. So I settled down to watch The Audreys with a bottle of beer and a flapjack from the cake counter. A setup I could get used to. They had a relaxed sound suited to the equally relaxed environment. Pleasant music, which was somewhere on the border between being a decent band and drifting into background music.
The Suffrajets had obvious toned down their act for the venue, the blurb describing them as "chaotic rock songs ex Babyshamble behind the drumkit". Well tonight it couldn't be further from chaotic, and the drumkit was a solitary bongo. No matter, this was a nice acoustic performance, but a bit hard to tell what they'd be like in their usual guise. It was time to head over to The Spiegel Tent, a magnificent portable venue plonked in the middle of Brighton for the next month. It was also time to view the longest queue of the week, for the suddenly-huge Brighton residents The Kooks. I was surprised how many people wanted to see them, especially with the likes of The Futureheads & Brakes on at the same time as competition. The people at the front had been queuing for over 2 ½ hours, the crazy fools, and I felt a bit shitty being able to join a shorter queue. The advantage of the venue being a tent was that you could at least hear them from outside. But they were frankly wonderful. Sometimes the uncomplicated bands are the best. Great songs, great lyrics "I tried to love her back, then I shrunk back into my wrap, and the barrel of my gun, I hope I'm not the only one", and a sound that is somehow unique as well. They may now be a commercial success, but they are a credible act, and give it their all to create something rather excellent live as well. Finally, I retreated back to the coffee shop for Swedish act Raymond & Maria, made up of 2 female singers and 4 guitarists, performing their first ever gig in English. They make pleasant acoustic songs which once again were perfect for the venue. The audience loved it, so much so that they had to resort to singing in Swedish at the end as they'd done all the ones they'd learnt the English for but the crowd still wanted more. I also, wanted more, but sadly the weekend was over. Fingers crossed it'll return next year.
Words and pix by Alan Smith