Day three of Brighton’s walkabout festival and this musical equivalent of a weekend-long all-you-can-eat international buffet has already dished up some treats, let’s see what we can find today…
Ooh, a French party? At midday? Why not?
So Great Escape Saturday starts in the Queens Hotel, where there are rumours of Pernod. Is that a good idea for breakfast? Concrete Knives, from Caen in Brittany, certainly are, anyway. Boy-girl vocals, frothy global pop, loads of percussion and echoes of Tom Tom Club thrust into a 21st century indiepop world are the order of the day here; music that’s designed to put a smile on even the most hungover face, of which there are unsurprisingly a few here. Mine, for starters. And yet within three songs plenty of us are literally bouncing up and down with the band, so infectious is their enthusiasm. The keyboard player in particular is one of the happiest people I’ve ever seen in a band, and I love the way when there’s a guitar break in the last song the bassist sits down on the floor against his amp casually drinking his water while singer Morgane Colas just stands there smiling. And she thanks her dad. Yeah, cheers Morgane’s dad, your girl and her friends got the day off to a great start. There didn’t actually appear to be any Pernod. Lucky escape.
To the German party next, at Komedia, where Fenster‘s magpie pop is no less joyous – at first. They have a quite ridiculous number of instruments between the four of them including all the usual stuff plus glockenspiel, wind chimes, a table of wires and switches, autoharp and some possible kitchen appliances – and a stand-up drum kit. We know stand-up drummers divide opinion a bit, but I love them, that golden age of pop Phil Spector beat that always happens at some point with them. And I love the way after three or four songs of this quirky upbeat oddness Fenster take a sideways shift into lush widescreen electrogaze underpinned with what might well be the “traffic noise” mentioned in their programme entry, and the second half of their set is an altogether darker and more downbeat beast. Must be quite hard if you’re a band with an eclectic repertoire to work out how to pitch a 25-30 minute showcase set.
Where next? How about international party number three: Catalan, at the Prince Albert. Always a good bet this one, and look, free wine! Oh go on then. Catch a bit of L’Hereu Escampa and their two-man guitar and drums garage rock’n’roll – a well-worn genre these days for sure, but always invigorating when it’s done with passion and catchy tunes, as is very much the case here.
A long time ago – or so it feels – on Thursday night, when we decided to call it a night about half one, we missed Girona punks Aliment and we’ve heard this was a big mistake. Luckily life – and The Great Escape – does sometimes deliver second chances: let’s see. The trio deliver a fiery set of snarling, hardcore-edged punk rock with no shortage of pop hooks, like a stripped back Catalan Future Of The Left or early Clash. 13 songs in a half hour set and every one a blast of adrenaline. Just wish I knew what they were singing about – I’ve got friends in Barcelona and there’s a lot for young people to be angry about right now – but their passion’s not in doubt. Fuelled by the wine I really fancy a moshpit, but as established on Thursday it’s probably a bit early. Early evening on an outdoor stage might not be though, just in case anyone is heading to Primavera Sound this week in Barcelona: catch them on home turf on the Ray Ban stage, Wednesday at 1800.
You know when you’re so deeply meshed into Festival Mode that you start to think doing really ludicrous and improbable things is not only possible but a really good idea? OK, Aliment came off stage just after 3pm. At ten past, Jake Shillingford is doing a My Life Story set in somewhere called St Ann’s Well Gardens. We have no idea where this is, though we think possibly Hove; we have two phones running map apps but neither of them as effectively as we’d like, but they suggest it’s about 15 minutes’ walk. What they do not tell us is that about 13 of said 15 minutes are fairly strongly uphill…
Fifteen minutes later and blimey, we seem to have stumbled into some sort of summer fete. Families and other groups sprawling happily on the grass in the sunshine, and a stage with an inflatable awning: St Ann’s Well Gardens Spring Festival is, granted, absolutely nothing to do with Great Escape, but somehow it sneaked onto the Alternative Escape schedule. Exactly what Shillingford is doing inexplicably appearing on a bill also featuring Brighton School Of Singing – the Cub Scouts on after are, it later transpires, a band called the Cub Scouts, not a performance of some sort by local cub scouts – is somewhat perplexing. (At the time; again, subsequent research reveals that Shillingford is these days Head of Music Business at Brighton Institute of Modern Music).
It turns out to be a full band set, and the sound quality’s better than some venues. Jake is sounding fantastic and pulls some gloriously exaggerated Rock Star poses as little children run around us; a magnificent “12 Reasons Why” sees a two-year-old attempt to start a moshpit. And I’d forgotten what a truly perfect three minutes of pop “Strumpet” was – complete with trumpeter and that still incredible diazepam/marzipan rhyme. Yes, we just marched up a massive hill for about 20 minutes of music but it was such a wonderful 20 minutes we’re left grinning like idiots.
Should we get some food? Or should we go and check out a band called Foam Lake at the Blind Tiger? Ah, who needs to eat? Foam Lake are four brothers (not sure if they’re all actual real brothers or just pretend ones, though the two at the front at least definitely look like they are) from Saskatoon doing grungey quiet-loud alt-rock that’s packed full of hooks and – somewhat unusually for pretty much any guitar music with roots in the nineties – not afraid to use keyboards and electronics. It’s tight, fast paced and enjoyably energetic stuff throughout – then they announce their last song and… hang on a minute, I’d know that guitar line anywhere… There’s something almost beyond surreal about being in a Brighton pub watching a Canadian band doing an absolutely spot-on version of one of Manchester’s greatest musical moments. That being Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out Of Me.” Good taste as well, then.
I do need to eat. The Pav Tav does food. The Pav Tav has bands on – an all-day-and-well-into-tomorrow-morning line-up of (from what I know of those I’ve heard of on the bill) quality bands from around the country, and free entry to everyone – which I like, as I’ve been young and skint in a city while a major music event’s going on, it’s good to see the “industry” giving something back to its host. That’s a plan.
Olympians have come all the way from Norwich (never an easy journey, wherever your actual destination) so it must be great for them to look out and see the pub packed like this. Theirs is the sort of twisty math-pop you often get at festivals like 2000 Trees or Truck’s Barn stage; impeccably arranged and intricate but not short on tunes – and they make great use of slightly off-mic four-way unison vocals. I’d like to see them again when I’m not being distracted by a slightly stale cheese sandwich and curly fries that are nowhere near as warm as they should be.
Our Lost Infantry, from Aldershot, have a lot of similar elements (not least the same drummer, doing back-to-back shifts) alongside a real knack for catchy hooks and a finely-tuned balance of experimental and accessible. An early highlight is “All The Streetlights Of My Hometown” from their excellent album “The New Art History” – literate, thoughtful and a little world-weary – and the post-rock influenced dynamics throughout are perfectly executed. You can be nodding along, trying not to do the Post Rock Dance (you know, bend at the neck or waist, backwards and forwards) because you’re in a brightly lit pub in the middle of the afternoon and then suddenly this huge chorus will explode out of nowhere proving that air-punching uplifts are not just for cheesy rockers, which this rather studious looking foursome are anything but. I could genuinely imagine this band doing very well though with the right breaks and they’d be a credit to any music-led festival’s emerging artists stage.
We realise we do not have a plan for this bit, but one of my companions has spotted a three-girl punk band on the listings, Velvet Two Stripes, so it’s off down to Coalition. Oh, and they’re from Switzerland. How many countries are we up to now? Out there in the real world it is Eurovision weekend – we’re just having our own. In which Switzerland turns in a creditable if not quite winning entry.
I saw that Runaways biopic fairly recently, and watching Velvet Two Stripes I just can’t get it out of my mind. Franca, Sara and Sophie are like a Runaways from some sci-fi-retro future, crunching guitars and snarling raspy vocals over the relentless beat of a machine. They swig beer on stage like a proper rock’n’roll band should. They’re at least as much grunge as they are garage punk, and not averse even to the odd admittedly distortion-splattered guitar solo, but the punk rock spirit’s all there in their attitude. That squealy guitar solo in the last song needs rapidly returning to the dodgy pub metal band from whence it came, though. And while we’re here, whoever thought Coalition was a reasonable space for a gig venue wants (a) shooting or at the very least (b) an education in the concept of sightlines.
Our sharp exit from the Catalan showcase to see Jake Shillingford meant we missed Za!, but luckily they’ve got another gig at Above Audio. Swerving the massive queue outside Audio itself (for Superfood, apparently, who are part of that ghastly Britpop revival thing currently going on in the West Midlands) we lodge ourselves down the front, then…
“Cath! They’re starting outside!”
Eh? What? The music rep I know from Manchester, but didn’t even know was down here until now, disappears into the front yard. We follow. From the street outside we can hear a mariachi trumpet before it and its owner dance into the yard, followed by bandmate with drumsticks (the band’s Facebook lists the members as Papa DuPau (Cable) and Spazzfrica Ehd (Link), which possibly makes sense on Planet Za!) tapping on the seats, unsuspecting people and indeed the bar’s revolving door. By the time we’re back inside trumpet man’s playing from the open door of the gents before he finally settles on the stage as a sensible place to perform music; half an hour later pretty much every conversation in the venue is along the same lines as ours, that being “What the fuck have we just watched?”/” No idea but we loved it.”
Za! describe what they do as “Post World Music” and much like current psych darlings Goat this basically means music without boundaries either of the national or musical genre variety. With Za! this involves insane breakneck-speed mountain folk and cyberpunk industrial techno, and that’s just the first tune. The drummer’s Aliment t-shirt is gone by the end of said first tune as he throws everything at his kit while vocalising down some sort of distorter unit, meanwhile the long haired one’s playing his trumpet with one hand and some flashing box of electronic wizardry with the other while dancing around on a row of pedals. As their website biography says, two people and seven instruments. Brain-meltingly loud white noise mutates into a Latin American flavoured jazz number, African drums clatter over guitar fuzz (yep, trumpet bloke again, while the magic box does its own thing) and the intoxicating beats have the crowd dancing and clapping along. A crowd which by this point includes a number of people who’ve failed to get in downstairs to see the hyped Britpop exhumers; that has to be pretty much the dictionary definition of a lucky escape.
Time to go to church – specifically St Mary’s, whose unassuming exterior conceals a stunning cathedral-like space which I’m sure has some sort of Dr Who bigger-on-the-inside thing going on; settling into a decently positioned pew and chatting with those nearby it transpires we’ve all got in early for The Veils and have no idea what to expect from the preceding act. No idea we are about to have our minds completely blown.
Elisapie is… incredible. A real alternative pop icon in the making, in the tradition of Bjork or Bat For Lashes, the sound she creates with a couple of backing musicians is organic and electronic, like folk shot through with high-end quality europop – and sung, for the most part, in Inuktitut, the language of the indigenous people of northern Quebec where she was born to an Inuit mother and a white father. Now most of the time when an artist decides to regale you with their life story between songs it’s something of a turn-off, but not here. Not just because hers is so fascinating, though it is – she was quite religious for a while, Anglican, and still rather emotionally affected by performing in a place of worship – but because of the poetry in which she tells of the place she grew up. “There’s no trees, it’s the tundra, but there’s also a summer. It’s like England, the summer, and we can pick blueberries in the valleys…” The music is equally cinematic, even if the tunes are actually quite mainstream and the couple of English language songs in the set fairly uncomplicated lyrically; this isn’t a criticism, just an assurance that this is no weird-out trip. The sweeping, almost orchestral sound around the voice and the danceable (well, if we weren’t in a church) beats echoes Sigur Ros in the way its roots lie both in atmospheric post-rock and a more commercial pop sound. But there’s more to it than that, it’s her presence. Somehow the whole thing ends up so much greater than the sum of its parts – and the parts were pretty special to start with.
Finn Andrews walks into the church, a striking figure, stick thin in black and his trademark wide-brimmed hat, he’s actually got that Nick Cave thing now, that presence and dark aura. The anticipation is electric. The Veils released their fourth album “Time Stays, We Go” earlier this year and it could be their best yet – at least up there with 2004’s debut. Most if not all of tonight’s set – aside from a solo, acoustic and tear-prickingly lovely take on early single “The Tide That Left And Never Came Back” as an encore – is from the new one and for most of us the first chance to hear these songs live; there couldn’t be a better setting. To say Finn is intense would be an understatement of colossal proportions; cathartic would be closer. Sometimes his words spill like water onto cracked earth, sometimes he is almost howling; by the end of the first song he’s turned his back to us and is thrashing hard at the drums (with the drummer still playing); he introduces songs in a nervous, slightly breathless way. They tend to be about anxiety. He finally gets rid of the spotlight that’s troubling him, but then “I can’t see the floor”. Eventually a compromise is found, to collective relief from the crowd – he seems so vulnerable and edgy all at once, like he could kill or break down at any moment.
Some very black things have clearly happened inside this still young man’s head, but my god has he managed to channel that into something beautiful. Listen to that first album now and it’s barely believable that he was just a teenager when he wrote it; the blackness apparent even in those Rough Trade signed radio airplay days. With these songs tonight though it’s like he has grown into himself, and into that voice – and my god, what a voice. The band sound great, too, augmented with a bit of brass that really enriches it all, but Finn… written words barely do him justice. The encore is demanded even though the lights have gone up and the church wants rid of us.
Just like last year’s equally stunning Erased Tapes label showcase night, St Mary’s Church has again managed to host an event which as a standalone gig has “year-end top ten” written all over it. The sort of event after which you really don’t need anything else, but it’s not even eleven o’clock. Everything’s getting rather vague – the schedule, that is. Charlotte (Ash) Hatherley’s new band are supposed to be on at the Prince Albert, then they’re not, then they are, then they’re not, then who cares – it’s open, there’s no queue, my mates are in there and there’s bound to be a band on of some description. That band turns out to be Drop Out Venus and their rather, shall we say, attention-happy singer sounds like Lene Lovich. My mate says Hazel O’Connor. Either way, she jumps up and down on the spot quite a lot and says things like “This is a song for all the freaks”; you get the picture. Gothic storytelling rocks up into frenzied electropunk shriekfest; seems the am-dram school of 80s post-punk disco pop melodrama is alive and well and living in Deptford. The (male) keyboard player meanwhile looks like a comedy zombie butler and they’re all wearing facepaint. Yes it is all very contrived, but surely better than watching some random four stuffed t-shirts playing anaemic indie rock, or indeed not watching a band at all…
The evening – and thus the weekend – winds up not at Sticky Mike’s for once but back in the Green Door Store whose Black Lizard set Thursday evening feels like weeks ago. It’s some more Finns (as in more people from Finland, not more people called Finn) to see the weekend out; Phantom are strange, to say the least, with singer Hanna Toivonen an enigmatic silhouette against the backdrop projections, and instrumentalist Tommi Koskinen doing… what the hell is he doing? What is that thing? It’s green, and shaped like a flying saucer from the golden age of sci-fi comics, and he’s waving his hands over it like a theremin and what he’s doing is definitely controlling the music, but exactly how… doesn’t matter at this time of night. It makes warpy sounds like early Flying Lotus before he went all jazz.
I, meanwhile, suddenly realise I am less than 20% awake. If I was a handheld electrical appliance the low battery light would be flashing heavily. The pedometer I’ve been wearing out of interest tells me I’ve walked a whole marathon over these three days, so I treat myself to the first and only taxi of the weekend in the direction of bed, but not before a general consensus has been agreed – and within the group of friends here tonight we’ve been to every one between us – that this has been the greatest Great Escape yet. Same time next year then? I reckon so.
All words and pictures by Cath Aubergine. If you missed it, check out Cath’s coverage of Thursday, Friday and the Wednesday warm-ups, or for an alternative view see David Brown’s reviews of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. More writing by Cath on Louder Than War can be found here.