Amazing scenes on the south coast as DiS once again descends upon the annual beachside band-fest that is The Great Escape. For the third year running we’ve set up shop in Digital, a rather snazzy club right on the beach; but it’s not just the bands playing our stage that we’re here to see. Some 200 acts are playing across three days – May 15-17 – and DiS is in town to catch the very cream of this substantial crop.
The Great Escape In Photos special: HERE
Eugene McGuinness seems to suit Brighton’s grey-pebble beach, somersaulting throat injecting colour into tales of stunted love and head-numbing woe. Oh, we are but lonely pebbles… the urgency in tracks like ‘Monsters Under The Bed’ leaves no time for wussy pondering as DrownedinSound’s Great Escape lifts off and our venue for the festival, Digital, fills in earnest.
Sky Larkin, playing their final gig (at Water Margin) before they up sticks to Seattle to record their debut album, show that they've spent 2008 in the musical gym. Now flexing newly gained muscles, they show they've moved from cutesy indie band to searingly brilliant indie-rock band, with newer tracks ‘Fossil’, ‘I’ and ‘Matador’ a complete revelation. When their debut album does finally drop, it's going to be hella exciting. Really.
Johnny Foreigner turn notorious sweatbox Audio into a barely bearable furnace and it seems months of hard touring are beginning to pay off. As No Age are to the noise-pop tradition, the Birmingham trio are to US college rock (as if everyone at college in North America worships Stephen Malkmus): awkward music for awkward people, theirs appeals to those who like their sound skewiff, dive-bombing at a tune before veering wildly off course into neck-rearing riffery. On the eve of their album’s release the crowd is rammed right to the front and singing words back - awkward kids, unruly hair and lenses and fashionless garb, point and shout at_ their band like this gig is a happy argument instead of gazing wistfully at streetlights from their bedroom window smoking chair. Sweaty Alexei, as guttural as ever, requests that a silver-haired photographess “get off our stage please_” before launching into another barrage of something awkward. Meanwhile, bassist Kelly - seemingly energised by the feverish reaction in front of her - throws bigger and better shapes by the minute. By the end, she owns.
This summer was always likely to be one in which No Age touched the minds of new converts, forefinger to forehead, like a skate-surf ET risen from noisy dirt. The alien was a vegan too, though the band’s wet attack sounds in search of cathartic blood-let, guitarist Randy Randall a bear pawing hooks out of the shimmer like salmon from the air. Teeth are unsnared as Wild Beasts’ drum-kit is clubbed into submission at Pressure Point – the twin merits of rock’s ‘special relationship’ no better epitomised than between the two bands, though UK national Hayden Thorpe later worries about the sorry state of his skins. The LA duo thrum and thrash delightfully, but with a strangely gappy venue and very static crowd it takes time for the set to catch fire. Things heat up around the time we have to leave to continue our search and destroying of bands. Disappointing for us, and for them.
Nic Nell, over at Hector’s House, cannot be faulted for enthusiasm and drive, but unfortunately right now the songs don't quite match up. Similar to friend and cohort Sportsday Megaphone in the world of the synth-electro one-man bands, he doesn't quite match up to his amis. Certainly not to be discounted, but the path to success may be a long trail to come. Back at Digital, London-flown erudites Fanfarlo run politely through a set of songs that sound ghost-written by the Condons and Ounsworths of the world. There’s not a great deal of originality to their sound but they’re proficient and occasionally produce moments that’d grace their tutors, crafting indie-pop that hones in on the smaller moments, inducing thoughts that grow into whimsy and grandeur.
Onto Sunset Rubdown at the Pavilion Theatre. If Guillemots had their feet rooted in the Canadian DIY scene rather than the dank flats of old, failed theatrical Queens they might sound something like Sunset Rubdown do in the ten minutes or so DiS spends with them. It’s most probably ‘Magic vs. Midas’ that greets us – guitar and keys pinching at each other like playground flirts, Krug’s voice billowing down in a modest gargle. The venue’s strangely sparse but by the time we leave the band have found their own theatre.
Meanwhile, we reconvene at the Spiegel Tent for Beach House. We watch from afar so as not to spook the spectres, clad in white and gathering to drink in melancholy from the aching ribs of the living. ‘Master of None’ drifts with that ache, up into corners of the tent like a lost balloon and we stare up into the top with kid eyes, fuck the dead pets, this is a child-like, earliest experience of loss. Shattered and woozy we drag legs back to the pebbles and sit around smoking.
Closing our gig-going – well, what DiS can recall before the night’s festivities take hold – we head to the Unitarian Church. It may not have been built as a teleportal to the Iceland Airwaves festival, but Björk's one-time producer Valgeir Sigurdsson is here on piano, accompanied by bassoon, keys and an incredible violinist. It provides a beautiful excursion to the land of Múm and Sigur Rós. And, for some, the Land of Nod.
We’re with food on the promenade when Wild Beasts come straining through the air from the venue next door to Digital. Soundchecking at Audio, the band draw brilliantly bemused looks from children sat with retro bottles of Coke. New album closer ‘Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye’ is offered up first, before what we think is ‘Assembly’ and know is ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ are tossed out, us taking in half a set that more than makes up for missing last night’s performance proper. Even when they’re not really trying, Wild Beasts are perhaps the most interesting new band on the Isles.
Gentle Friendly, opening Revenge’s excellent Friday bill, take a running leap into their set and sink massively, underestimating the depth of what they’re doing as a droning keyboard refuses to do anything other than fail. A connection’s loose somewhere so the drone carries for five minutes or so, spurred into life by eager drums. When they get started things are great, albeit in fits and spurts; they lurch through the awesome ‘Five Girl Night’ before imploding again when the kick drum pedal gives up. Having fought ably for air no-one puts out a hand to drag them the extra metre to the surface, and they leave the stage, promise and expectations expanded though we’ll have to wait a bit for the delivery.
At Digital, DiS is transfixed with Cadence Weapon’s eyes; shifting laconically in exquisitely drawn frames, they’re key to understanding the Canadian MC’s considerable charm as a performer, underscoring the warmly self-depreciating tone of his flow which is felt in full force tonight, electro and techno-tinged forays punctuated by some terrific scratching from hirsute DJ accomplice Weezl. Before his set, he tells DiS of his dislike for static, unmoving crowds; impressively, the audience are duly and quickly won over by the enthusiasm expressed on (and off) stage, and a wholehearted foray into some classic hip-hop call-and-response vocal gymnastics.
We Are Scientists
Ahead of doors at DiS’s stage, we’re at One's To Watch at Audio. We Are Scientists are the band of the weekend when it comes to making a gig feels like an event. Elevated above the outside deck of the venue playing over the seafront_ a la a sun-kissed Beatles, the now-quartet rip through tracks from both their albums gleefully, reminding all assembled both inside and on the street outside that they have a fine canon of songs in the making. They even manage to briefly bring out the much-missed sunshine in the late afternoon, a fitting analogy, all told. Things, naturally, end on a rendition of _'The Great Escape' and it's a smart ending to a very great idea in the first place.
Getting away from all the rinky dinky jangling indie bands isn’t as hard as it’s been in the past at this year’s Great Escape. Case in point: Volks on Friday, where gloaming Texans The Black Angels pack the place out for an appropriate soundtrack to dusk falling over the grey English Channel. Riding a hot desert wind on the back of deep, turbulent bass, The Black Angels (with second album Directions To See A Ghost recently issued, review) are increasingly showing themselves to be more than a sum of their Velvet Underground-indebted parts, and work best when their jet-black skies are rent with the lightning of extra percussion, Alex Maas still patrolling the stage uttering forth his peculiar Jim Morrison-meets-Clinic vocals from some place betwixt a low-brimmed hat and impressive beard.
We’re lured back into Digital from the outside’s grey murk by the toppling chords of Wire’s ‘Ex Lion Tamer’. Shaun Hencher, the Bleach-blonde bombshell at the epicentre of Lovvers’ explosive grunge shtick, is not a happy bunny. “The bar’s for buying drinks at, not standing at,” he growls, only a few scattered loons deigning to join him in bounding round the moshpit, opening up space for body slamming showboats, while his band’s caustic racket charges down umpteen cul-de-sacs in fine style. We join intermittently, still sore from last night’s revelry, but ‘No Romantics’ and ‘Wasted Youth’ are irrefutable invites to body bruising, externally and internally, sounding hunched over with tequila and lemonade. Along the seafront at Revenge, DiS soaks up an electro take on Atlas Sound’s sonic erasings; it’s that that Telepathe remind us of most, somewhat obliquely, though they can be a little too dreamily detached for their own good and could use a stronger pop focus in the long term, especially when technical glitches mean highlight ‘Chrome’s On It’ never gets aired this evening. Strangely alchemical, unique stuff, nonetheless.
One of the tricks to getting around at The Great Escape is to stay central and avoid the venues at the extremities of the route map – therefore avoiding wasting precious band watching time by long treks and also saving your feet. Another handy tip is to not go to the shows with big-ass headliners, because they're going to be full from 6pm as people choose to give up their day's venue-wandering in order to check out their favourite band of the weekend. Therefore heading over to Concorde 2 to watch the much-discussed White Lies proves a classic rookie mistake. The venue, far down the beach, is being headlined by indie funsters The Wombats, guaranteeing that the only way to get in past 6.30pm is if half the crowd come down with dehydration and heat exhaustion (possibly). Duly deterred, DiS heads away, shaking our heads at our foolishness. Off to see bands that aren’t popular. HAH. The seven minutes of* Johnny Foreigner *that we subsequently catch – twice in as many nights - more than make up for disappointments elsewhere. (I stupidly pick guitarist/singer Alexei up afterwards and spin him around; my clothes still haven’t recovered – Ed)
Rolo Tomassi are,_ of course, superb. Having refined their abilities over the past 12 months, the Sheffield quintet now hold the ability to turn the atmosphere and feel of a room within a second, so well honed their shriek and attack methodology is. It's quite stunning, and even more so when vocalist Eva announces that she will soon be 18 so she can legally play “all the venues we've played already”. Right Before launching into a scream of a truly devilish nature. All very, very_ brilliant, despite a few keyboard issues playing havoc with James’ contributions to the cacophony.
It can't all be good though; we bundle into Audio to find that Late Of The Pier are attacking their instruments on stage. All the rage in cool kid circles, we are told, and they certainly appear to be rather 'now'. In fact, they’re so now that you want to vomit into your own cupped hands and smear it down your front in protest, and then rub up against the wide-eyed kids in the front row, if only to distract them from the horrors in front of their eyes. Team Waterpolo, at Hector’s House, are also one of those bands who look now, sound now, and who are possibly only a nano-second away from being tomorrow. Therefore they’re about to rip open the universe through a tearing of the space time continuum, and destroy us all. So, before the human race crumbles: let it stop.
Or, if that small critique didn’t cut quite close enough to the bone try this: it's hard to imagine a worse concept than Hard -Fi but with their ska-band turned nu-metal-rave - including Linkin Park-style decks!? – Team Waterpolo take some beating for the worst nearly-hyped band of the millennia. We truly can't decide what was worse, the stench of the gents overflowing or the thought of ever hearing this band again.
But we stick at Hector’s for the next up, as DiS has a vested interest in Sportsday Megaphone's show - an integral part of the gig is the battered old Mac laptop that some of these words were written on. A last-minute substitute after Sportsday's own goes down with cramp in the warm-up, DiS has a warm fuzzy feel seeing its own flesh and microchips spew out digital beats and snaking baselines while Hugh Frost is as endearingly lo-fi pop candy as always. Due to the size of our ego and our love of the iBook G4, we declare this to be the best gig of the weekend by a country mile.
Ahem… Anyway, one reality check later and we’re onto the pier and into Horatio’s for Alphabeat. DiS must be honest and say that we have an issue with the Danes: the previous night at Stupid O’clock, three members of said pop mentalists were very, very noisy and rude and annoying on the way back to our shared hotel. They were even more annoying in the lift we're sad to say, and it's on these small-minded things that reviews can be balanced. Sometimes. Fortunately DiS doesn’t take to them anyway, or their dullard FM pop. It's not subversive to like these guys, people; it's just silly.
From silliness to something super-sharp, and what makes Crystal Castles (pictured top), at DiS’s Digital stage, so razor-edged is the utter contempt they seem to have for rock ’n’ roll. It’s strange, then, that tonight they should opt to employ a live drummer whose beats more or less bury Ethan’s arcade of swirling bleeps. Occasionally they fight their way through to meet the stung voice of Alice Glass, who’s busy teetering out over the heads of the front row, confusing security – this is crowd vaulting and jockeying that mashed disco-rejects have never seen before. The entire set is lit by strobes and by the end eyeballs are tired of their constant widening then dimming, as if they’ve been shown alternate slides of girls from Camber last week, Brighton this. ATP girls ‘til death.
Up against Crystal Castles in the never-ending schedule-clash wars are The Mae Shi, who ravage Horatio’s in fine style, tossing their party sheet to the wind – well, into the crowd – as Slow Club’s Rebecca joins in for a Moshi Moshi love-in during ‘Run To Your Grave’. Bouncing at the front, spilling pint in hand, it suddenly smacks DiS in the face that the last few Mae Shi shows we’ve witnessed have been every bit as fun as our first experiences of Les Savy Fav. Our new favourite party-time rock combo? Quite, quite possibly.
When the evening’s over the night takes hold, so it’s off to the Barfly for a double-header of Ipso Facto and Black Lips in the small hours. A judicious juggling of passes and smoking cards means that all our noble reviewing party are able to obtain access to the packed, one-in one-out venue. Unfortunately, Brighton’s version of the nationwide chain is a music venue where you can’t actually hear any, er, music. Long and dank, there’s not even a set of speakers to enable those of us of a certain age sitting at the back to enjoy the choice selections of the gramophone technicians. Plus, given that Ipso Facto spend about half an hour before they start playing standing onstage sending stern glances towards the sound man, it’s hard to notice where standing around looking cross ends and where a set of clipped, Mitford menace begins; consequently we miss most of the set. What is evident is that Ipso Facto are coming along very nicely in their own ramshackle way, though you can’t help but wonder just how boorish Britain outside of London is going to take to their elegant hemlines.
Black Lips deliver an awesome display of how to play to a crowd of ill-gutted reprobates, and pretty much everything offered forth is gold. Cole Alexander is happy just catching his own spit, so imagine how up he must be when he has a throbbing mess of an audience singing his songs back to him. This is the last time they’ll be in the UK for a while, apparently, and it’s a rambunctious fitting send off for them and the Friday night. (A slight aside: the t-shirt Kev Kharas wore to Black Lips is still sweaty three days later - Ed)
The singer in the wonderfully-named Cheeky Cheeky And The Nosebleeds, on stage at Revenge, looks rather like a Maccabee. The rest of the band sound rather like a high-octane Maccabees pumped up on lager, sugar and a Strokes record. They'll do really rather well, probably, their Wire-influenced, gibbering indie-pop possessing a goggle-eyed glee that’s hard to dismiss. Nowt out of the ordinary, mind, just... likeable. At Concorde 2, Soko is all Kimya Dawson meets Bright Eyes meets Kimya Dawson meets Daniel Johnston meets Kimya Dawson. She doesn't really rise beyond the comparisons whilst childishly stamping her feet about MTV's lighting.
Cheeky Cheeky And The Nosebleeds
An hour or so earlier, at The Barfly, the festival’s mandatory rock (hardcore/metal) show is taking place as Canadian party boys Cancer Bats bring their tour to town. Godfathers of Brighton heavy metal, Johnny Truant, and the Radio 1 Rock Show’s Dan Carter’s punk band Hexes continue their support roles with the addition of fellow Brightonians The Ghost Of A Thousand who whip the crowd into a wild, frothy frenzy with a subtle click of Tom Lacey’s fingers and a soupcon of visceral hardcore rock ‘n’ roll. The relative unknown on this bill is Norwegian lot Sigh & Explode. If you liked The JR (fucking) Ewing then you might want to give these mustachioed maestros a listen.
Telepathe deserve a second chance after their laptop mifirings, and they’re given one at Digital, early doors. There are so many ideas crammed into their set that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Underpinning the tribal-pop and rhythm of Gang Gang Dance with bulwarks of dubstepping British bass, the trio here tonight craft perhaps too many layers, absorbing dual frontgirls Busy Gangnes and Melissa in their future drift. But there are occasions when it all comes together and tunes make a sudden dart through the haze, conjuring images of glittering cities laid to waste by unknown disaster, tower blocks on fire, Busy and Melissa new-Spector naifs attempting to stay cool in the warming. ‘Chrome’s On It’ flutters into view and the two sound like they spent their younger days casting spells on desired schoolboys.
DiS is probably getting rather old, but Micachu is surely seven years old? We wonder if we could try and slip her into our pocket, purely to see if she'd fit, so diminutive is she as she settles on the stage at Hector’s House. Her backing duo also look like they've stepped out of the Young Pixies of Electro-Rock Academy. Almost inevitably, the noise that emanates from the poorly equipped stage is very loud and rather cacophonous. We've been assured that the young lady does have a fine array of kooky electro-pop tunes, so we'll blame it on a shonky PA and hold fire on the judgements.
Cassie & The Cassettes are a box-fresh bunch of twindie-looking young ‘uns apparently with grade one certificates coming out of their ears and very clearly in thrall to the music of Belle & Sebastian. “Next!” is the obvious response to that introduction, but the melodies here at Hector’s – the outfit follow Micachu – have a stealth and charm suggesting they could do interesting things when they finally cut the apron strings.
Broken Records leave DiS in the cold – we’ve left our coat at Digital – as they ram Audio; we get in just in time to witness their recently released single ‘If The News Makes You Sad…’ in the flesh, and it’s still a skin-prickling experience even after so many airings in our company. The Edinburgh outfit continue to make friends and influence people in the right places, so expect bigger and bigger things from them as the year progresses. They’re clearly very capable of being this island’s Arcade Fire; whether or not that’s what they want remains to be seen.
Times New Viking play to a packed house at Digital – possibly assembled in expectation of schmindie shenanigans from The Rascals, who fill in for the absent Santogold – but the response is more than enthusiastic, as well it should be: ear-socking noise-pop never sounded this darn wholesome. They follow the most traumatic event of the weekend, which is undoubtedly watching Mathew Sawyer sound all at sea in an indifferent – derisive, even – end-of-pier venue (Horatio’s), voice shrinking away to a mouse-being-strangled-at-twenty-paces whimper. Not the fate we’d wished upon this most talented of songwriters, but while on record he never shirks from the seriousness of his art, he might at least have made more attempt at communicating in difficult circumstances.
Later of the pier – at the same bar – and an entirely different prospect are Let’s Wrestle; a raucous set bringing such a frenzied response from certain sections in the audience frontman Wes is even coaxed into an improbable guitar solo at the end of their ‘theme tune’, ‘Let’s Wrestle’. Men dressed as Elvis or John Travolta occasionally appear from the bar next door during their set. Apparently there’s a karaoke competition. Seems strangely appropriate. Beyond Let’s Wrestle’s slacker clowning there’s an undeniable ring of truth about them that suggests they’ll be around for a good while yet, and frankly we’re looking forward to putting in the necessary QT.
Audio plays host to Friendly Fires, and many are in to see them. After a rather interminable delay, they hit the stage to masses of livewire percussion and streams of minimal guitar stabs from Edd Gibson. Still not the finished article, half the set is engrossing and exciting, but there's still too much flotsam and jetsam in their half hour of funk-fuzz-indie. But they have more ideas and intelligence than most of the bands in Brighton this weekend, so our hopes are with them to fulfil their potential. Said possibilities are rammed home for penultimate track ‘Paris’, already something of an anthem. When Ed Mac urgently croons "And every night we'll watch the stars / They'll be out for us", you believe that they just might be.
Finally, it’s off the beaten track with Times New Viking members in tow to find a certain house party featuring a certain Rolo Tomassi. All we see of their set is the occasional hand flung desperately at ground floor windows wet with steam. We hear them, obviously – you know how it rages, their noisy tank. If you don’t you should’ve got here before the police came to bring their set – and the Great Escape – to an appropriate close.
The Great Escape In Photos special: HERE