It isn’t possible to do a standard review of The Great Escape. You can only see a small fraction of the acts playing, you can’t guarantee getting in to see the acts you like best and, given the focus on new music, a lot of the acts will be totally new to you. So, I’ll try and give a flavour of the acts I did see and hopefully offer some hints and tips to anyone who is thinking of attending the event next year.
My first act was upstairs for the start of the evening show at Komedia. The stage was sponsored by Mojo magazine and I was excited to see the evening introduced by their editor in chief Phil Alexander. This was probably only exciting to me as the majority of the crowd looked too young to have watched him in the middle of the night on Raw Power in the mid 90s. The first band of the night was Deep Sea Arcade, an Australian act with a big 60s influence. They had a nice garage sound and reminded me a little of The Coral. Their front man had a decent enough swagger but his slightly weedy vocals were one of the weaker elements of a pretty strong set.
On to The Corn Exchange and more Australian sounds from the much tipped Cloud control. Their sound is the epytomy of indie, sitting somewhere between The Go-Betweens and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Another decent set and despite the obvious influences they managed to sound pretty fresh. Mid-way through one of their songs they cover a section of the Butthole Surfers ‘Pepper’ and that makes me forgive any of their less inventive elements.
Back to the Komedia and, after some indecision, downstairs to the packed studio bar to see the second half of the Brasstronaut set. Brasstronaut are difficult to define, a group playing alternative pop music with jazz instruments rather than a jazz band playing pop (if that makes any sense). Whatever they are, they are pretty great on the evidence of the songs I saw and the crowd loved them. I’ll definitely check them out again if I get the opportunity.
Following some wandering, more indecision and a food break we ended up upstairs at the Albert public house. Setting up on stage, in front of another capacity crowd, were Dry The River. One of the hardest working bands at the event they would play four sets over the weekend and this was their second. They spent far too long setting up and tweaking the sound whilst the crowd got a bit restless, but when they did start playing it was worth it. They play what is weakly described as folk rock, and have the requisite facial hair for the job. The songs are good, the hooks memorable and you can take a look at a video clip here.
Wandering through the streets we decided to check out Gang Gang Dance at The Pavilion Theatre and see what the fuss is about for one off the more hyped bands of the festival. Walking towards the venue we soon saw that this wasn’t going to be possible, the queues for the venue, and the neighbouring Corn Exchange (where Warpaint were playing), stretched far up the road.
Tip 1: If you want to see any of the better known acts playing at the bigger venues later in the night you need to get there early. Probably at the start of the previous band if not earlier.
The second days events started with a move towards some of the seafront venues to check out the entertainment in a different part of town. We headed downstairs at Audio to see the “dark and twisty” electro of Christian Aids. The music seemed to veer towards a fairly bland take on Euro-pop and to be honest the only thing that could be described as dark was the venue. It was so dark that you couldn’t see anything ion the venue except a bit of the stage where a group of men were stood drinking from water bottles fronted by a female vocalist. If the music had been more engaging I might not have minded, but it was a pretty dull and not very enjoyable experience.
Heading upstairs we found a totally different sound and atmosphere, with Modern Superstitions halfway through their set. They play a pretty traditional take on rock and roll, with a good level of stomp and a confident and brash female vocalist. It made me think of the Gossip (without the self conscious coolness or histrionic vocals) with just a little bit of Suzi Quotro (and I mean that in a good way). It was a great set from what I saw, and I wish I’d been up there from the start, one of my bands to watch out for from the weekend.
Next saw a trip to Horatio’s on the pier, a venue better known for the sound of karaoke and the smell of chip fat than new alternative music acts. We arrived for the end of Alias’s set, a young all-girl trio from Barcelona. Not enough time to get an accurate view on the band, their amateurish but melodic perfomance was enjoyable but could grate over a full set or an album. Following on the same stage were Tribes, a much hyped Camden act that (like a lot of the younger acts I saw over the weekend) took their template from the bands of the early 1990s. The band had a lot of energy and a decent swagger, and I enjoyed their influences with Superchunk coming to mind. The downside of the set was perhaps a lack of variety, but they impressed me enough that I’d be interested to hear how they translate on record.
A lesson learned from day 1 I headed to the Pavilion theatre very early to make sure I got a good spot for Josh T Pearson’s evening performance. Placed front left of the stage I had no preconceptions about the next act to appear, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou. Their sweet voices and close harmonies were lovely, and I really enjoyed the way they played. The microphone sharing brought a closeness to the performance that worked with their cheerful folk sound and I was reminded of Simon and Garfunkle in places. Trevor Moss does have an unfortunate similarity to James Blunt in his vocals, but it was a very refreshing set, watch them play here.
The act that had been looking forward to most was on the stage next, and he didn’t disappoint. A very intriguing figure, returning after a ten year absence (when his band Lift To Experience broke up) he was playing songs from his acclaimed solo album. Heavily bearded and downbeat he stood alone on the stage and his country tales were beautifully sung and played with real intent on a surprisingly noisy acoustic guitar. Between songs he was more talkative than I’d expected and told some dry jokes, which were mainly at the expense of musicians. It was a powerful and mesmerising set and a great way to end the day, see a clip of it here.
Tip 2: Pick an area of town with acts that look interesting and try them out. Walking backwards and forwards across town wastes a lot of time and finding new acts is an enjoyable part of a festival of this type.
The Saturday was loaded with most of the better known acts and four of the bands I wanted to see most (White Denim, Yuck, Sufjan Stevens and Okkervil River) were all on at the same time. The organisers clearly have their eye on selling lucrative Saturday day tickets and spreading the bands better over the three days would greatly improve the festival.
Starting near the station in The Green Door Store our first act of the day, Hot Horizons, was another band that had a strong early 90s influence to their sound with a hint of shoegaze. The band had a good humoured and relaxed stage presence and it was an enjoyable performance. They played a tight set and the drumming in particular stood out, definitely a band with promise and one that I’ll make a point of checking out on record.
After an early and extended break for food and the FA Cup final we headed down to see what was playing at the festival hub. The late afternoon break in gigs is another of the festivals less successful elements. It is hard enough to see acts over the weekend and it seems a strange decision to stop activity for a three hour period in the afternoon. Some bands were playing during the lull on the outdoor stage at the festival hub and it seemed a good way to pass the time, but the sound was too quiet and any impact the bands would have had was lost. An outdoor stage for smaller acts and surprise sets is a great idea but it didn’t seem to quite come off in practice.
Heading back indoors took us to the studio bar at the Komedia for the 2nd time in the weekend. Irish singer-songwriter Rhob Cunningham, also of the band Our Little Secrets, took to the stage for a solo set to a busy room (one of the best things about the weekend is that I never saw a quiet gig, the crowds were good everywhere). This kind of Dylan influenced ‘one man with a guitar’ act is ten-a-penny and needs to have something to make it stand out. Luckily for Cunningham his voice is strong enough, and his songs are catchy enough, to make him stand out. I enjoyed the set a lot and you can see a clip of him here.
Rhob, like most of the acts I saw was incredibly polite and appreciative of the audience. I’ve always been a fan of acts that appreciate and respect their audience, I’ve always found the Liam Gallagher style disdain and arrogance tiresome. (And Liam really should grow out off it, it was pretty boring when he was young and starting out, now he is nearly 40 and a millionaire it is pretty pathetic)
We arrived at the Dome concert hall at the advertised time to see support act DM Stith, only for the lights to come up and reveal Sufjan Stevens and band launching into an dramatic version of ‘Seven Swans’, Sufjan himself with swan/angel wings outstretched. The disappointment of missing DM Stith was soon forgotten as we were treated to a truly epic 2 and half hours of music, lights, dancing and drama. The set was heavily taken from The Age of Adz and he was celebrating the more electronic sounds and taking the opportunity to face his fear of dancing in public for the festival crowd.
The more celebratory and expressive set meant that there were some real opportunities for light and dark shades through the evening. A big set piece would be followed by a quiet folk number and this worked perfectly and didn’t jar as it could have with a less talented and sophisticated performer. I could write about the show for pages and pages, the Lady Gaga elements of the performance (including giant glitterball costume), the lengthy between songs explanations of his challenges and motivations (including a slide-show about his muse, the outsider artist Royal Robertson) and a dozen other elements.
The performance of ‘Impossible Soul’ (almost as long as the 25 minute album version) brought the show to a close and is likely to have divided some of the audience. My friend questioned his use of auto-tune saying it brought to mind the kind of terrible pop exemplified by The Truesteppers featuring Dave Powers (sic), but he concluded that the show was 95% excellent none-the-less. Stevens returned to the stage dressed down in jeans and t-shirt for a solo piano reading of ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ which highlighted how brilliantly he could move from showbiz to intimate. The band returned to join him for an inevitable performance of ‘Chicago’, complete with balloons, before calling it a night after one of the most memorable performances I have seen in many years. Stunning stuff, you can watch a clip here.
I like to end on a high, and decided to make that the last act I’d watch of the weekend. The Great Escape is flawed and not the place to go if you want to guarantee seeing lots of your favourite acts, but I thought it was a big success and I enjoyed seeing so many packed gigs over the weekend. I’ll definitely be back next year.
Tip 3: I think it is a great idea to pay the few pounds extra to see one of the big Dome shows over the weekend. If you don’t have a particular preference avoid the Saturday night set as it is when the organisers are most likely to schedule a lot of the better known acts. (Not that I’d have missed Sufjan Stevens for any of them).
By Dorian Rogers