The Great Escape Festival
15th - 17th May 2008 - Brighton

Once again it's that time of year known as festival season and what better way to ease myself in gently than by not actually having to leave my hometown for my first of the summer. This is the 3rd annual Great Escape festival, which if you don't know is held across 20 relatively close venues and features a staggering 200 plus bands. This means picking where to go is a major challenge. Early arrival is required for the big names which this year included The Subways, Mystery Jets, The Wombats and The Futureheads. I chose instead to mostly stick to the smaller acts and check out some new names in the hope of stumbling upon the next big thing. I started out seeing Broken Records, a band clearly trying to make an impression by playing every night of the festival. And they made just the sort of impact I was looking for, a solid act undoubtedly going places thanks to their clear Arcade Fire influences, although they were a touch more conservative, bringing the Coldplay ballad sound and Hope Of The States darkness together.


Next I had the long walk to The Old Market in Hove, annoying the venue most of the bands on my weekend to-see list were playing at. Once there I was absolutely blown away by the quality of Tunng, a band I had been recommended but had never actually heard. The general consensus on this band seems to be that they are a "folktronic" band. Which basically means nobody can think of a sensible description of their music so they have plumped for a fairly meaningless phrase. I'm not going to do much better at describing them, certainly they do have vague folky leanings, and an electronic element but their sound has much more breadth and depth than that. They blend an eclectic selection of sounds together to produce a very mesmerising experience. This gave venue headliners Iron & Wine a lot to live up to. Whilst Tunng managed to retain band of the night status, I&W did put on a stunning performance. They are in a lot of ways a similar prospect to Tunng, with their indescribable blend of sounds and complex musical manipulation. They have a slightly more country leaning, perhaps more atmospheric and a little less complicated. But both bands have done a great job at messing with our established world of easily placing bands into simple pigeonholes.

This year the organisers have expanded the festival through a number of "alternative escape" events organised by venues and promoters across the city to give a selection of gigs to fill the afternoons and late nights. Tonight it was off to the dark underground (in the literal sense) Engine Rooms who had a late night selection of unsigned acts. First up were Pope Joan with their acerbic yet melodic sound which takes bags of influence from the jerky Bloc Party style. A local band, they have started to make a name for themselves thanks in part to having had a prestigious slot supporting The Fall. Following them were Maura Kincaid, an unsigned band from Worthing who have a very confident frontman, in the 90s Liam Gallagher / Ian Brown vein, the kind you don't see very often anymore. This is a strange sight to behold in such a small venue, but a band brimming with confidence is no bad thing. Their songs are well written upbeat catchy indie pop songs, with the odd ballad like the soaring Right Place Right Time thrown in for good measure. And with that it was home to bed after an evening where every band more than lived up to expectations.

Pope Joan

Day two kicked off with me heading down to The Prince Albert for some afternoon gigs put on as part of the Alternative Escape. But upon arrival I discovered not a lot was happening. Why? Because the delightful people digging up the street outside had managed to take out the power to the whole road. But with the beer pumps obviously still in full working order I saw no reason not to stick around. And I was treated to a charming acoustic performance by two-piece Slow Club. Their songs are mostly gentle but occasionally fierce, built around their impressive vocal talents. Definitely one band I'll be trying to see a proper gig by as soon as possible. I then waited around for about an hour, finally deciding that with no power nothing more was going to happen, but just as I was walking down the stairs a huge cheer went up. The power was back, and on came special guests Little Man Tate. They've been around for a couple of years now, and gave a great performance of their classic indie anthems, with impressive enthusiasm given that even when rammed The Albert only holds about 70 people.

For the evening I decided to stay in The Old Market all evening taking advantage of their solid lineup, clean and pleasant surroundings and reasonably priced proper pints (unlike the club venues which still stuck to their usual extortionate prices). First up were the credible Kate Nash, Peggy Sue & The Pirates, who no doubt hate that people like me keep using Kate Nash as a first reference point. It's simply that this female two-piece have similar vocal sounds (and having supported Miss Nash might be a rather large factor), but their music has a much more quirky nature and has a huge number of much more relevant influences (Cat Power, The Fugees, Billie Holiday, Moldy Peaches) that could also be referenced. I really enjoyed their heartfelt performance, which made use of a wooden table and drumsticks as an unusual instrument along with switching between drums, guitars and a melodica.

The New York Fund (pic Gregory Nolan)

Next up was my surprise package of the weekend, London band The New York Fund. Their songs were perfect alternative classics, full of charm and style. They had tons of musical talent, in particular the reclusive guitarist who made the most complex solo seem effortless. Previously known as Cherry Falls, in their new incantation they are definitely ones to watch. On next were The Lionheart Brothers who I didn't think that much of. Vaguely psychedelic, their set seemed to blend into one long nothingness. I expect it's more my tastes than anything, I like my music more abrasive than they were. Not bad, just not very interesting either. Finally were The Hold Steady, a band I'd been itching to see ever since picking up their recent album Boys And Girls In America on a recommendation and loving every minute of it. If you haven't heard them, they are unlike any other band around at the moment, with a uniquely fierce vocal sound coupled with a soaring and spectacular backing. Live these elements stood out even more so knowing their music before you see them live is a must. They are a strange a bunch of characters as well, from their unlikely looking frontman with the shockingly raspy vocal style to their suave moustached keyboardist. Not a band, or a performance, you are likely to forget in a hurry.

With the rain lashing down, walking to a distant venue or hopping between others was out of the question. So I decided to head to The Komedia for the evening. Sadly the first band due on, The Bookhouse Boys, never appeared, meaning it was 8.15 before I actually managed to see a band. That band were The Corrections, a fairly average little indie outfit, playing tamer imitations of Bloc Party. Not much for me to get excited about, but plenty of potential commercial success all the same. The Displacements were much better, proving to be a much more punky outfit live than they sound on record. This young Leicester band has already managed to write one of the catchiest songs you're ever likely to hear in the shape of Down And Out. There's real enthusiasm behind their performance, and they prove themselves to be a very striking and worthy prospect. Finally for this year's festival are broody Scottish rockers Glasvegas, oozing in both style and substance. Their songs owe a dept to The Jesus And Mary Chain thanks to their heavy and dark sound, but carve out a sound of their own mainly due to the earnest sincere lyrics with an unmistakably strong Glaswegian accent. For a band yet to release their debut album they have a dedicated following and a confident stage presence that would make you think they'd been doing this for decades if you didn't know better. Stunningly accomplished, they far exceeded my expectations.

Glasvegas (Pic Steve Bateman)

So what have we learnt this weekend? Firstly, that being a drummer is no picnic, having seen two separate drummers in different venues have amps topple onto them mid set. That celeb spotting at The Great Escape is harder than you might think (Huw Stephens being about the only person I spotted). That once again, the May weather really isn't suitable for a festival that requires frequent trips outside. That the music scene seems to be in very good shape, with almost all of the new bands I saw showing a lot of promise, and this was just a small selection of the many many bands trying to create an impression. And finally that this is a festival that has really grown into an established enjoyable event that is starting to make full use of every hour of the day to allow you to cram ever more bands into a hectic but exciting weekend.

By Alan Smith