It’s midday and Cath has had about five hours’ sleep, stuffed down a vegetarian Full English and posted yesterday’s review with just minutes to spare before the bands kick off again at Brighton’s live music bonanza weekend…
Good morning Friday. You mean it’s time to start again already? Ah, go on then…
Last year the Republic Of Music courtyard session proved to be a particularly efficient hangover remedy, so seems as good a place as any to try and wake up – and so it falls to Little Fears to provide our sonic Bloody Mary. Singer Luke has one of those voices people are going to love or hate – it’s a lot like the similarly opinion-dividing James (Puressence) Mudriczki’s, and that’s not the only echo of Failsworth’s finest going on here, there are brooding guitars and at least one great building crescendo. Shades of second album Wild Beasts, too.
A short walk down the seafront steps finds Hjaltalin are making one of several appearances at the festival. Another band we last saw holed up in the cinema on that ice stormy afternoon in Reykjavik, there they were playing a largely ambient film soundtrack, which they did as well as any dedicated soundtrack mini-orchestra. Here it’s a very different Hjaltalin – one that exists almost entirely in its own space and defies easy categorisation by mixing up influences that really shouldn’t go together, a bit like that Masterchef contestant who did fish with pomegranate. Seventies prog, several shades of the eighties from ostentatious pop to light funk, and 00s post-rock are just a selection of the ingredients here, with an occasional side order of gothic melodrama. It’s adult pop, but not quite as we know it. And we’ve noticed this before with Icelandic bands – they don’t seem to trouble themselves with concepts such as mainstream versus alternative, they just play music. So an upbeat soulful pop tune sung by the female singer can melt into a brooding atmosphere with rattling drums and drones of violin and synth sung by the frontman, who looks like some Nordic mythological character with his long golden hair and beard, before the whole thing explodes into an Arcade Fire finale. Fish and pomegranate girl won the cooking contest, I believe. Sometimes weird mixtures end up working.
In what’s rapidly becoming a sort of Round The World In 80 Bands (well, 30 or 40) our next stop is – have a guess… Luxembourg. Courtesy of Monophona, who bring their dark and exquisitely intoxicating post-trip-hop electrogaze to a function room in the Queens Hotel. Outside the clouds are starting to close in ominously on the sunshine and that’s kind of what Monophona sound like, too; the slow heavy beats and warped machine signals lightened with bright guitar and Claudine Muno’s beautifully evocative vocals. They remind me a lot of one of my favourite Manchester bands From The Kites Of San Quentin, not least in the way you can tell this is the meeting of some pretty diverse musical backgrounds. Claudine later confirms this: she’s a bit of a “folkie, as you can tell”; Philippe “Chook” Schirrer (apparently!) on electronics and samples is a DJ, and drummer Jorsch Kass is “into everything”. Chatty as she is between songs, though, when she’s singing she’s completely absorbed in it – a joyous, passionate absorbed as opposed to the intense and pained variety – and it’s impossible not to join her. Stageside, a small TV shows a loop of monochrome footage of a road tunnel, the same two seconds over and over but you don’t realise this at first and then you do, and the whole effect is rather hypnotic.
Back in the courtyard, Splashh have drawn a big crowd and manage to drag the sun back out with some upbeat indie splattered with feelgood psychedelic keyboards and a fuzzy 90s alt-rock edge. Being old enough to remember the 90s we’re not sure at first but by the final tune, a pacy pop hook wrapped in a huge technicolour synth sprawl, they’ve got us. Annoying name, though.
Up in the town centre that supermarket must think it’s its birthday, as bottles and cans are cracked open to accompany The Dunwells‘ cheerful indie-Americana. The Leeds band have the kind of chemistry and indeed musicianship you only achieve by hard gigging, and there are some fantastic multiple vocals from frontmen Joseph and David Dunwell and indeed the rest of their band. There are families with kids sitting out there amongst the festival goers and while this really isn’t the sort of music I’d ever listen to at home it makes for a decent afternoon soundtrack.
We pop inside to the the Dome theatre, where Alarm Bells are ringing, I mean playing. Described as an “all or nothing ADD freakout” – which seems to loosely translate as energetic modern-spec prog metal and a singer with a definite case of ants in his pants. It doesn’t really work for us at half three in the afternoon on a big theatre stage, but I bet they’re a bit of an experience in a pub basement venue where there’s no real stage.
Susanne Sundfør certainly works. We’re back in the Republic Of Music courtyard where Norway’s remarkably prolific alternative pop star (dive albums in as many years, two of them number one back home) is deservedly well received. Her CV includes collaborations with M83 and Royksopp, she’s recently been remixed by Maps, and you can see how they each found a kindred spirit here: her dramatic melodies are fuelled by techno bleeps and lush electronica. You could dance to bits if it, at least if there was any space in the yard.
Over at beachside pub Fortune Of War we can get a proper pint, and it comes accompanied by the sound of one Gavin James. It is a quite frankly ridiculous place to watch live music, what with the players all but silhouetted against that window to the sea behind them and the stairs from the ground floor bar taking toilet-going drinkers right in front of the band – but as the young Irishman honed his craft in the pubs of Dublin this shouldn’t be much of an issue for him despite being more of the sensitive, subtle songwriter with finely crafted melodies than the sort that just belts them out. He does that thing, you know, trying to get the audience to sing backing vocals (in this case the line “this is the story of a lonely heart”) but by the time he actually gets to that bit everyone’s forgotten to bother. Never mind, worth a go.
Washington Irving, next up on the platform. Glasgow based (as singer Joe says of the unusual setting, “not often you see a beach where I’m from”) but with members originating from further north, they have a nice line in the sort of rousing electric folk indie of which there seems to be an undendingly rich seam coming out of Scotland these past few years. So while there’s a mandolin involved, and a lovely evocative take on traditional folk song “She Moved Through the Fair” but they’re equally not afraid to rock out a bit and head into Frightened Rabbit territory; it’s not hard to imagine whole tents or fields of festival crowds singing along. At the end of their set they go for the noise and feedback and drum thrash finale option and the whole place vibrates like it’s about to come apart at the seams. It strikes me that’s part of the fun of these things, the squeezing of bands into spaces where bands really shouldn’t be.
Phone home. What are you up to? Oh, off to see a shoegazey act with an unpronounceable name. “Oh, that’s unusual for you”. Ha. Guilty as charged.
Except we’re not. Shuyler Jansen – which isn’t that unpronounceable to be honest anyway – isn’t here, and instead there is a bloke in a baseball cap and heavy chain, twisting knobs and flicking switches; some crack detective research by yours truly (and some of the Great Escape volunteers who are equally in the dark, though I get there first) reveals him to be Filosofische Stilte, which is certainy a mouthful. Dutch for “Philosophical Science” according to the festival guide (I’m sure one of our Lowland based readers will let us know if that’s the case) it’s the nom de electronique of young Dutchman Luuk Graham. His arsenal includes Nintendo consoles that are probably as old as he is, and his inflences seem to include early house and techno that’s probably even older; the result is a rich, sweeping and intelligent collection of electronic bleepery similar to that being created by Manchester’s D/R/U/G/S – and very good, too, though not what a fair few of the congregation were expecting. Oh yeah, did I mention we’re in church at this point? The Unitarian church, which is by its nature modest as churches go, but it’s still a church with stained glass windows and that, with Graham standing in front of a seated crowd as if preaching from a pulpit which must be seriously weird for a lad who’s probably more usually found in a late night club environment.
We saw Golden Fable all of three days ago (though it feels like weeks at this point) supporting Public Service Broadcasting in Manchester and technology was not being kind to them – tonight everything’s working and we get to experience their beautifully lush electrogaze in its full glory. They’re like a 21st century Slowdive, washes of synth in place of guitar effects. Rebecca Palin shimmers behind a stack of keyboards, dressed in sparkling silver and with a voice to match; initially it seems remarkable that they grew out of the ashes of Tim and Sam’s Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam a band so organic their debut album came in a wooden box with a teabag (I’m not mocking. I own it and I’m glad I do) but then when you listen you realise it is very much a progression from that pastoral acoustica. Certainly many of the admittedly faintly ridiculous things I and others wrote about Tim And Sam over the years trying to put into words the feeling of faint nostalgia and rustic beauty they evoked (“the last ice-cream van in a dying seaside village from which the children have grown up and moved away” – er, cheers for that, my 2010 self) still ring true, only now it’s bigger and richer and brighter and you can dance to it. I only resist buying the gorgeously hand-packaged album because I’ve got hours of this to go yet and it deserves so much better than to potentially have a drink spilt on it. (Adds to shopping list).
Tripwires are from Reading and you have to wonder if they were grown in a petri-dish out of DNA collected from Ride’s first album sessions; the singer’s even got Mark Gardener’s 1990-spec lank curtains hair. And yeah, I know Ride were Oxford but there’s not a lot in it musically, to a young northern dreamer it was all shoegaze land. There is indeed much gazing of the shoes this evening – well, gazing at a quite stupendous selection of pedals and effects, anyway. They’re split across four boards – and there’s only three of them! (two guitarists and a bassist, that is; obviously they have a drummer too, but we’re talking pedals to people ratio here). And the tunes they create are glorious; they go where they should and sound all fuzzed up and noise-edged, maybe a bit of a Smashing Pumpkins influence going on in places – but mostly Ride, even managing to make a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End” sound like the son of “OX4”.
None of this is a criticism – far from it. Maybe I just hear Ride because I loved them so much, the way I always heard The Chameleons in Interpol where others said Joy Division or whatever; I never heard much Verve in Exit Calm where massive Verve fans (which I never was) did. There are quite literally thousands of bands out there who sound like weak imitations of things that have gone before, and fans of the things in question point and laugh at them. To convince and win those who loved your openly-worn influences takes something a bit more special. Tripwires are that special, and there’ll be a copy of their debut album hitting this old shoegazer’s stereo as soon as it’s released in June. (This is becoming a potentially expensive day, isn’t it?)
The Dome is quite a building. Originally built as the (future King George IV) Prince Regent’s stables, apparently, it’s been a concert venue since the 1860s and its most recent £22 million refurbishment a decade or so back was partly courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s like Brighton’s Royal Albert Hall or something, I’ve never been in there before and I feel like I should be wearing evening dress and wielding some opera glasses. But no! Tonight it’s in the hands of the working class, the trade unionists, the old punks and – it’s a delight to report – a fair few younger festival goers too who have topped up their tickets for £7 (I guess this place costs a bit more to hire than a seafront pub!) for an audience with the one and only Billy Bragg.
But first, this incredible space plays host to a 20-year-old from Southampton in a Strummerville T-shirt called Sean McGowan, a name you can imagine causes all manner of confusion with older crowds. Our headliner has been publicly singing McGowan’s praises, citing him as One to Watch for 2013 in his John Peel lecture, and the lad’s already played support to the likes of Frank Turner, but still, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be standing up there in front of this crowd armed with just a guitar (plus friend, Dean Paul, on back-up guitars and vocals). The idea of the acoustic troubadour throwing a mirror up to the world may be as old as the hills but it’s interesting how even this most traditional of genres has been coloured by the culture around it: the way his tales of nocturnal escapades and love on the dole “down by the docks, lit up by the ferry lights” spill from his soul in dense and colourful verse is the descendent of hip hop and street rap as much as those old-style folk storytellers. I’ve written down “Like Jamie T only much better” before realising the poor lad probably gets that comparison all the time. Sorry about that. Watch out for him, probably, on the leftfield stages at all manner of festivals this summer. And when he says at the end that he’s achieved a lifetime ambition tonight supporting Billy Bragg you know he absolutely means it with every shred of his soul. And I might be tired, but you know, I think I just got something in my eye….
Billy Bragg opens with a song from years ago which in three pithy minutes pretty much described the country we live in today, probably even more than it did back in the 80s – that song is, of course, “Ideology” and if you don’t know it go and have a listen. If you thought politicians were self-serving back in 1986… He’s got a band these days to fill out the sound and the space, and the mournful sound of a pedal steel enhances this classic piece of agit pop perfectly; there’s organ, too, but nobody’s shouting “Judas” here. Billy Bragg is 55 years old, it would be outrageous to expect him to stand on a soapbox in a faded T-shirt all the time. He still has plenty to say, though, in and outside the songs. Soon he’s chatting amiably about the “SXSW vibe” at the Great Escape and sharing some ever-astute observations: the hipster goatee is dead, he has noticed, and “it’s all the full beard now, with their acoustic guitars singing Woody Guthrie and wishing they were 55… Which is handy for me.”
Bragg has, of course, spent a few years faithfully “restoring” some of Guthrie’s works at the request of his oft-cited inspiration’s daughter Nora, who apparently sought someone who could make her father’s songs relevant to a new generation. They didn’t really need much changing to achieve that. You listen to “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” and as Billy points out this – at least as much as any of his own Thatcher-era compositions – could have been written in the last five years but is actually more than seventy years old. And it’s true: anyone who still thinks being vaguely middle class and/or gainfully employed means recession can’t get them needs to watch the Guthrie biography “Bound For Glory” – an arresting piece of social history.
Back in the 21st century our own agit folk legend bats off the controversy “on the social media sites” about his recent “going country” – “which country isn’t specified” – with the 20+ year old “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood”, that pedal steel again working its magic. He has a point, and anyway, do people actually really still get upset when an artist’s sound evolves over years? It’s not like he’s “gone” chillwave or black metal, is it? It’s not one of his outwardly political or relationship songs, though, that makes that something in my eye return – it’s “The Space Race is Over”, a lament for the dreams of the mid to late 20th century. I’ve had similar thoughts myself.
And of course we get some talk of Thatcher’s death – more about the unusual circumstances, on tour in a snowy Calgary, in which Bragg heard the news than any sort of cheap celebratory posturing which would of course be somewhat beneath him – and the hits at the end, “Sexuality” and “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” – it may be unusual that one of the star headliners of a deliberately styled new music festival is a 55 year old man with a thirty year career behind him, but he’s as relevant in 2013 as he’s ever been.
Finding myself without much of a plan, I wander into the Dome Studio theatre (a) because it’s next door and (b) because someone with whom I share a lot of music taste has just texted me he’s heading there. I know absolutely nothing of Mikal Cronin, though Wikipedia usefully informs me he is a member of loads of bands I’ve never heard of, such as Okie Dokie, Epsilons, Party Fowl and Moonhearts. No? Me neither. Oh, and he’s in Ty Segall’s band. The venerable oracle also tells me he is 27, to which my first thought is “tough paper round”. He does decent enough hairy garage rock, with strong tunes and a nice 60s garage-psych keyboard alongside the guitars, but half an hour’s enough really.
Into completely unknown territory next; quite fancy Merchandise at the Haunt at 1am, and on discovering there’s no queue and two unlisted “Special Guests” playing – one now, one at 2am – it seems like a better bet than picking something elsewhere based on programme description and not being able to get in. There’s a man in a gold shiny jacket howling and barking at a microphone – he stops short of actually chewing it, but only just. The three-piece band are doing some explosive punk garage rock’n’roll with drumming bordering on violence. The Amazing Snakeheads, apparently. “Best band I’ve seen all weekend” says the bloke next to me. Wish I’d seen more. So punk rock’s in again, is it? This being the NME Radar event. Interesting.
Outside to the smoking pen to check texts (The Haunt being yet another of the many Brighton venues with zero mobile signal) and the scene at the door is surreal. From no queue to small queue to… well, I can best describe it as if someone switched on a massive great big electromagnet. What the fuck? Meanwhile The Amazing Snakeheads’ facebook page has finally loaded on my phone, and “Last minute Great Escape gig tonight at The Haunt with Merchandise and Palma Violets.”. Ahhhh, I see. That would be why everyone except me is 20. My mates arrive minutes too late to get in.
Merchandise are another hotly tipped band with clear punk influences, though there’s a lot of 90s noisepop influence in there too. Music it’s pretty much impossible not to love if you’re down the front of a dark sweaty rammed little venue (and god only knows The Haunt is darker and sweatier and more rammed than most, the latter due to its having the worst layout of any venue in the history of everything): there’s a friendly and very young moshpit, crowdsurfing and lots of fast paced guitar-blasting fun. They seem to play for all of about ten minutes, though I suspect it’s probably more.
Now I know in the interests of journalism I should stay and report on NME darlings Palma Violets, not least because outside there’s no special queue for delegates as there is at some venues and it could be considered a privilege to be in here to witness what will doubtless be described as a festival highlight by the magazine that’s promoting it, but I was in here for a late night Palma Violets set once before when the then little-known band (this is all of about a year ago) were British Sea Power’s midnight guests at a Krankenhaus show – they made precisely no impression on me then and little since. Sometimes it’s great not being a professional who has to sit through and write about stuff they don’t actually like. And my leaving will allow one more fan through the door.
It’s 2am. Bed or one more band? What do you think? Back to Sticky Mike’s it is, then. The traditional “where we go when everywhere else is either full or finished”; the one more band transpires to be The Griswolds, a bunch of extremely cheerful looking young Australians on a trek around Europe. Line checking, we note they’ve got your classic Aussie surfer dude look – so the last thing we’re expecting is the throbbing Hi-NRG electrobeat that opens their set. There’s a live drummer too, and the singer’s got some electronic pads; that’s quite a pile-up of percussion. It’s soon joined by some cheerfully tropical pop tunes, one of which has the wonderful chorus line “ah man, you’re fucking crazy” and four of the five of them singing (does the keyboard player, who isn’t, have a really bad voice?) that gives the whole thing a sort of Brazilian carnival feel. A kind of upbeat end to the day that puts a much needed spring in my step for the stumble back to the hotel. It’s three in the morning. I am 41 years old. I shouldn’t be…. ah, fuck it. If there’s one thing today’s haul of artists has demonstrated – from the youngsters making music inspired by sounds older than they are to the grey beard on the face of Billy Bragg, it’s that when it comes to great music age is irrelevant.
Bloody hell though, those stairs aren’t half a bit steep…
Tune in the same time tomorrow (or thereabouts) for the final instalment…