GREAT ESCAPE 2012
In May 2006 me and some friends headed down to Brighton for the weekend for a brand new festival, largely because our beloved British Sea Power (and in my case my other fave band 65daysofstatic) were playing. The urban walkabout festival was in it ascendency and we liked the idea of them having one in Brighton because Brighton in May, well, the weather’s going to be brilliant isn’t it? It wasn’t. It absolutely shat it down via gale force winds and freezing temperatures for most of the three days; walking along the seafront to the out-of-centre Concorde 2 venue where 65DOS were playing while being literally forced back towards the town by the sheer weight of weather every time we stopped was definitely one of those “why do we do this?” moments. The small number of venues were all miles apart, the number of tickets sold meant you basically had to choose your venue for the evening early on and stay there and there was pretty much nothing on during the day. Camden Crawl had already been established for the best part of a decade by this point and Manchester had In The City which offered the whole music industry conference thing alongside the gigs. Great Escape? We couldn’t wait”Â¦
And then we came back the next year. Another British Sea Power booking and a few other favourites drew us back to the coast in 2007 for what remains one of my favourite weekends of one of my favourite years of my life: the sun was shining and I saw all manner of wonderful bands I’d never heard of before. After a year off in 2008 I went back in 2009 – by now there were plenty of daytime activities so you could see more bands for your buck, there was a fringe festival growing alongside the main one and a mini- In The City style industry convention, but you know, we already had In The City, and a shortage of money and leave from the day job kept me away for a couple of years. Then October 2011 arrived, and there was no In The City. I’ve done Live At Leeds, Sounds From The Other City, Wakefield Long Division, Sheffield Tramlines, various Dot To Dots and even a couple of days at Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival but nothing beats a full-on three-day band-watching bender. The convention side of Great Escape has now grown into a full-scale conference and party which covers most of the ground ITC used to, and to be honest while I miss the fact that I could watch 15 bands a day for three days and sleep in my own bed, maybe it had run its course. Time to head back to the coast…
FRANCOIS AND THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS
Thursday, Corn Exchange
FrÃÂ¡nÃÂ§ois Marry and his friends put in an early bid for scariest onstage dancing of the weekend. Not the first band I’ve seen today do formation arm-waving, but theirs comes as part of a full-on dad-dancing thing. Somehow this is OK, though, paired with their bouncy Francophone feelgood music which pitches the current fashion for all things vaguely Graceland-ish (Paul Simon’s pioneering Afropop crossover will be referenced a few times this weekend) into a colourful post-Animal Collective world. They’re Francophone not just in the voices, but somehow even in the synth sounds – that crystal clean Air via M83 thing – although the buzz about this band in general shows how things have moved on certainly over my lifetime as a music fan: a band singing mostly in a language other than English would once upon a time have been lucky to escape novelty-act status here. Proper catchy holiday fun, anyway, even if it is pissing down and grey outside.
Friday, Republic Of Music courtyard
Day Two gets off to the best possible start: standing in a courtyard at midday in the sun while Thomas White plays “All The Fallen Leaves”, the opening track from his recent album “Yalla”, which is already pretty much assured of its place in my end-of-year list. It’s an album that effectively tells its own story: having signed his first record deal at sixteen, got a Mercury nomination for The Electric Soft Parade’s “Holes In The Wall” just two years later, spent a decade playing in as many bands as is humanly possible (including but not limited to ESP, Brakes and Restlesslist as well as live work for Patrick Wolf, British Sea Power and Sparks) and made a couple of critically acclaimed solo albums, Tom needed a break and headed off to Egypt for an open-ended holiday. Instead he found himself doing a lot of soul-searching and writing and recording a collection of delicate acoustic songs from which all of today’s set is drawn. The stage is some kind of storage space opening onto the yard at the Brighton HQ of the UK’s largest independent distributor Republic Of Music, and if you ever wanted to know how to get a bunch of local and national music scene types and festival goers to shut up for a while, the answer is to play amazingly beautiful songs rather quietly. The lyrics paint a picture of a crossroads, of changes in relationships and a kind of pause for reflection and transition, and somehow you can hear the baking desert sun in the melodies: the last song he plays, “I’ve Seen The Sunrise”, is spine-tingling. The set is just twenty minutes, but every last one of them is sublime. Quite why this unbelievably talented man, still not yet thirty years old, isn’t widely considered some sort of musical national treasure is beyond me. Although maybe right now he’s happiest here, just playing his songs to those who know and love them on a sunny day in the hometown his heart could never really leave behind.
Friday, Republic Of Music courtyard
The latest old band name to be possibly unwittingly recycled? These young Australians, who share some members with Tame Impala, don’t have a great deal in common with the early-90s Sub Pop alt-grungers so confusion is, to be fair, unlikely. I can hardly take my eyes off the guitarist’s incredible bouncing hair, apart from to wonder if that’s a genuine Kiss World Tour 83-84 t-shirt on the singer; his parents might have been the right age for that… He’s brilliant, wandering out into the crowd looking like he’s not been to bed for three days despite looking about 14 – pretty powerful lungs, though, in fact possibly the most surprising face-voice combination since Eva from Rolo Tomassi. The band meanwhile rock out in a wildly psychedelic way, metal-splattered garage with great whirls of “whoa, heavy man” keyboard. It’s such a ridiculously filthy wig-out it feels almost like Guilty Pleasures – not that anyone should, of course, ever feel guilty about rock’n’roll excess. As even the band admit, it’s quite a change from Thomas White: “yeah, I was quite enjoying that til… til we came on” says the blond guitarist in that wonderfully dry Australian way. The kid’s on his back on the floor by about four songs in, they end with a full-on low-budget-Pink-Floyd epic prog-out and it’s one of those performances (at ten past one in the afternoon) you wouldn’t want to have missed.
Friday, Catalan Sounds @ The Prince Albert
I always love the international showcases at events like this, the way you get festival goers mixed in with a massive expat party. There are neatly trimmed beards, hats and a stand-up double-bass on stage alongside electronics and a banjo. Which is a bit different, isn’t it? “They’re just a wee bit fuckin’ mental…” comments a Scottish acquaintance well known for deranged and excessive behaviour at gigs (though recently off the booze) after two songs. Bloody hell, if he thinks they’re mental… Mind you, the singer has just stood up and, off-mic, given him (just him) a pseudo-religious blessing. As you do. There are samples of spooky childrens’ voices, hard tribal drums, strings of bells, a gong and some thoroughly out-there avant-folk-free-jazz songs built around the seated singer / banjo player’s free-range operatic howls. There are wild trips like Captain Beefheart having a party in a Mediterranean olive grove. It’s at once impenetrably strange and so feel-good you’re compelled to stamp along. At the end, the odd bow-tied quartet stand and the applause continues until they’ve actually left the room. Outstanding. As the Catalan Sounds website advises, “the only way to experience Seward is by switching off the computer and actually going to a gig” – this actually refers to the band’s wilful avoidance of any form of social-media presence, but it’s also completely true as a general statement.
THE SUICIDE OF WESTERN CULTURE
Friday, Catalan Sounds @ The Prince Albert
Some sort of military march gives way to dark distorted drones as the screen shows images of blood and brutality which it quickly becomes clear are old newsreel footage from the Spanish Civil War. Two black-hooded figures stand underneath, twisting switches on a particularly laden version of the modern electronica artist’s Table Of Interesting Stuff and nodding from the waist in time-honoured fashion to the hard-edged industrial sounds they’re creating. Played as a continuous piece, the sound evolves into a more ambient landscape as the screens spin newspaper pages and still shots of destruction, before the words flash up “HOPE ONLY BRINGS PAIN” against an explosion of Fuck Buttons meets Holy Fuck progressive electro-post-rock. Finally there are cinematic sweeps and a last message: “LOVE YOUR FRIENDS, HATE THE POLITICIANS”. Outstandingly powerful stuff and my favourite new (to me) band of the weekend.
THE ERASED TAPES LABEL 5TH BIRTHDAY CONCERT (all of it)
Friday, St Mary’s Church
Full of beautiful arcs, the cathedral-like church in Kemp Town is the perfect venue for the Erased Tapes label’s fifth birthday celebrations. The label specialises in all things cinematic and dreamlike, with imagination and musicianship the running thread across a variety of genres from the intricate twisted techno of Rival Consoles to the classical crossovers of Ãâlafur Arnalds – and tonight we’ll see three more examples from a near-flawless roster.
THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE started out as a virtual “band”, with Aid Burrows and Justin Lockey excanging and developing ideas by email; when I interviewed them for Incendiary Magazine in late 2008 ahead of a gig at Manchester’s Deaf Institute Burrows explained that “during the whole creation of the first album we didn’t even meet, so we didn’t really know how we were going to pull it off live or anything – we didn’t care, we didn’t really feel like it was something we were going to need to do live.” All I can say to that now is they certainly figured it out. The seven piece band sitting at the foot of that amazing cathedral space fill it with sound from the start; the kind of electrogaze meets Hope Of The States foundation we heard that night in Manchester still forms the foundation but there’s so much more depth to the sound tonight with classical influences seeping in amongst the post-rock and electronics. They specialise in great rich immersive swells, but also have a feel for dynamics, knowing exactly when to take it all back down to a whisper. It strikes me that as such they are the ideal band to open the evening, as they pretty much encapsulate the whole spectrum of Erased Tapes’ musical worldview. It’s a shame their time slot limits them to just five tracks.
NILS FRAHM is possibly the least pretentious classically trained virtuoso musician ever. Looking more like he should be fronting a shoegaze band, he wanders up to the microphone and chats for a while, telling people to come forward, as a makeshift floor-seating area develops with the pews’ colourful kneelers used as cushions. His set starts with the hammering of a single key as he hardens and softens the tone; it’s already hypnotic, and the start of a journey through the uplifting and the melancholy. You completely forget you’re just listening to one man with a piano, if that doesn’t sound utterly ridiculous – I’m pretty sure I’m far from the only person here who doesn’t generally attend “piano recitals” but from the front to the back the congregation is transfixed. Peals of melody flow from his fingers, interspersed with sequences that sound pretty damn close to things you might hear in IDM-type electronica: a very effective fusion of contemporary and traditional. He does like to pull something interesting out of the bag when he can, too – a request for an assistant to add little high notes while he works the lower registers is granted as a girl steps up from the crowd and plays her part perfectly. A stunt? Nope. She is, it transpires, a classical pianist but they had never met before, or so her mates sat behind me explain and from their stunned faces I can tell this is actually true.
Massive technical issues delay tonight’s headliners A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN who again incorporate strands from ambient post-rock and modern classical. There are synths, guitar and piano and lots of strings being played but their tones are meshed together so finely the effect is that of rich, florid drones and long tracts whereby a single note is filled with a kaleidoscope of shifting sound. I feel my eyes closing, not tired or (god forbid) bored but genuinely entranced; as the set draws to a close some more melody-driven violin lines come into play as if to welcome us back into the world. I look down at my notes and discover I have written just four words: “a bit Twin Peaks”. An absolutely stunning evening which taken as a standalone gig might well find itself in a few end-of-year lists, not least mine.
THE LONGCUT / PLANK / GREAT WAVES
Pav Tav, Friday
The second night of Manchester’s south coast invasion and GREAT WAVES are onstage when I get there, their spaced electrogaze a useful bridge between what I’ve just seen and the remainder of the night. Maybe it’s just where my head’s at but this duo are getting better every gig. They do indeed make great waves, waves of beautifully rich synth that wash over your head and pull you in. PLANK! meanwhile are always a good way to spend half an hour or thereabouts with their infectiously danceable psychedelic instrumental workouts. It’s not all Kosmische groove machine (although a lot of it is, and no complaints here); there’s a fairly large helping of progressive rock going on in there too which seems particularly prominent tonight.
THE LONGCUT’s set kicks off with that multi-faceted eight-minute prog trip that’s been opening pretty much all their recent gigs; here perhaps more than anything from the first two albums there are far more parts than three people can reasonably play, so guitarist Lee joins frontman/drummer Stuart in the running-about-between-positions game. This really serves to energise the crowd and the band are already on a roll, blast straight into “Tell You So” and… clunk. The power cuts out. Amps, lights, the lot. Not much they can do, really – they’re not exactly the sort of band who can do strum-along-a-sing-song. Eventually someone puts 50p in the meter (well, in truth someone probably flicks a switch on a fuse box or somethin) and we’re off again. Possibly because of the time of night and the general state of most people the interruption is quickly forgotten and we’re back up there doing various forms of evil dance to “Evil Dance”. Other recent sets we’ve seen have been a lot heavier on the new and unreleased, whilst tonight they sensibly go for a balance which means we get to experience some glorious Longcut moments such as the traditional Lift Someone Up In The Air And Pass Him Around A Bit during the still incredible “Transition” and that beautiful shivery bit in “Tried And Tested Method” when Stuart walks back to the drumkit and, before sitting down and resuming drumming, hazes the cymbals a bit. An absolutely blinding set from one of Manchester’s finest and most underrated bands of the 21st century.
CERCUEIL / THE NATURALS
Green Door Store, Saturday
Green Door Store is a particularly literally named venue in a cosy little arch under the main railway station, and first on the menu here is some French electropop. The word “electropop” came from the guide: CERCUEIL are actually a lot darker and more twisted than that implies. There are influences from both krautrock and darkwave (I’m really trying not to use the phrase “witch house” owing to the fact that it is no longer 2010), wonderfully heavy echoing tom-heavy beats from a live drummer and haunting free-flying vocals – you can also dance to it, although the temptation to throw the odd goth shape has to be fought hard. Mind you, what do you expect from a band whose name translates as “coffin”?
While we’re on the subject of band names, it’s fair to say THE NATURALS isn’t one which exactly leaps out of listings at you. Their programme entry however is slightly more enticing, containing the phrases “overarching post-rock” and “darkened noise-storm”. This transpires to mean understated vocals and guitars that build from Foals-ish squiggles to crashing waves; at first I’m thinking yeah, nice sound but nothing spectacular, but their songs somehow seem to get bigger and more interesting as they go along. The last is a massive dynamic trip that swells, fades to delicate near-ambience then comes back stronger with a wall of guitar distortion and drum frenzy. Needless to say it ends with guitars on the floor and pedals being manipulated by hand and cymbal haze and white noise. The classic post-rock-noisegaze tropes, but then other genres have tropes: pop songs end with a repeat chorus, heavy rock songs break for a guitar solo; various dance genres value the Drop: it’s about how well you do what it is you do and The Naturals do music I like and do it very well.
A PRETEND POSH PARTY ON A BALCONY
Holiday Inn, Saturday
Not a musical event, but it’s not all about that. Somehow a couple of my mates have managed to secure a sea-facing fourth floor room in the Holiday Inn for less than the rest of us are paying for regular B&Bs and Travelodges so we decide to pretend we’re posh for a couple of hours. Fine sherry, a quality cheeseboard, port, olives and freshly baked breadsticks are supplied by various people, our uncoordinated efforts adding up to a properly posh buffet, and we stand out on the balcony as the promenade and beach and sea stretch out in front of us, waving at anyone who cares to look up from the street below.
THE LOUCHE / GHOST OUTFIT
Pav Tav, Saturday
I head back to the Manchester AKA The Pav Tav to to find THE LOUCHE have just got onstage, their midnight set time absolutely perfect for their glorious fuzzy pop. I love the fact that their sound is that of the finest guitar-pile-up shoegaze but they don’t shy away from big tunes: at some point there’s something that sounds for all the world like a mid 20th century doo-wop number if only they’d known about things like psychedelic pedals and echoey Wall Of Sound drums back then.
It falls to GHOST OUTFIT to wrap up the night’s – and weekend’s – live music. Always capable of making a much bigger noise than should be possible for two people plus one guitar and one drumkit, they’re on fire from the first chords, their frenzied punk indiepop sounding like nothing less than Dinosaur Jnr in their prime. At least that’s what it says in my notes; you’ll forgive me if my actual memory is a little hazy for much beyond the fact that it felt like that golden moment when a band rockets up to the next level. I also manage, somehow, to write down the excellent phrase “Pop with filth”. The crowd are going for it full pelt, members of the other bands leading the jumping mass as Jack dives in with his guitar for a while. They blow me away. They blow my friends away, one of whom describes the set as “the purest punk moment I’ve witnessed, and I saw The Ramones in early 1980”.
THE LOW POINTS
The obvious one first: the queues. Were they any worse (or indeed better) than previous years? I have no idea. I suppose the fact that Thursday afternoon events were rather limited, and largely held in the tiniest pubs on the site map, didn’t help. Standing in the street outside the Prince Albert, having been slightly delayed when a stalling Tube train failed to make my London to Brighton connection, knowing my friends were watching the music I could only hear, didn’t exactly get the weekend off to a good start: by the time I got to see my first band I didn’t really care who they were or whether they were any good.
The alleged queue-jump properties of a delegate pass held little sway when there seemed, at least on that first afternoon, to be as many of them as there are standard wristbands. Mine was courtesy of the press accreditation scheme but they were also on general public sale (about three times the price of a regular wristband, I think) and quite a few of my mates had paid up. None of us bothered in 2007 (if indeed they were on public sale then; the only person I remember having one was a friend of a friend who worked at XFM) and we saw loads of bands; a mate bought one in 09 and didn’t actually see anything we didn’t. By Thursday evening we’re starting to think they’ll be the only way to see anything at all, which leaves a really nasty taste, of money buying you priority and of a two-tier audience system with the proles (of which I’d have been one, without that worked-for accreditation) dining on the scraps, so to speak. Thankfully by the end of the weekend my regular wristbanded mates have had just as much of a good time and seen as many bands as the ones with passes. I’d have felt a bit shit if they hadn’t.
Next: the mobile network coverage. When gigs can be miles apart (I’m sure the Prince Albert, next to the station, got further from the seafront each day) with no guarantee of getting in (see above), some sort of dynamic information service is required and Great Escape provides this, via a text message update system (ÃÂ£1.50 to subscribe) and a Twitter feed. However, the usefulness of these services is rather limited by the fact that Brighton has the worst mobile reception of any major city I have visited: I can honestly say I’ve had a better data signal in an isolated mining town in Western Australia. It drains batteries for fun ”â you grab electricity where you can (generally the Prince Albert which has a socket under the window where you can do it subtly). And once inside, half the venues don’t even have enough to send a text: the biggest farce being on said Thursday night when I’d actually found a venue that wasn’t full, went back outside to text my friends and initially couldn’t get back in! (Common sense prevailed fairly quickly, but still). Then on Saturday, one of my friends traipsed all the way up the pier (which is always further than you think) for the Showcasing Scotland event at pier-end pub Horatio’s, only to find the event had moved half a mile inland to The Warren. Later we discovered I’d actually had a text update about this (which I’d ignored as I never planned to go) and he hadn’t. He’d clearly been the wrong sort of indoors at that point.
But all things considered, will I be back next year? Oh, I should think so…
The music reviews in this piece are excerpts from manchestermusic.co.uk Great Escape coverage. Please visit us for all the rest of what I saw”Â¦