Ah, The Great Escape. Snipping at the heels of its American counterpart, SXSW, the British festival – established for music discovery – has grown considerably in recent year, drawing thousands of music fans and industry professionals out to Brighton to watch hundreds of established and emerging bands from the world over showcase their sounds in a variety of venues.
Over three days and nights, we saw a smorgasbord of new music whilst having no choice but to embrace the beauty that is an English springtime, completely with dreary and relentless rain. It didn’t dampen spirits, however, and we came away from the festival tired for sure, but packed with new favourites from around the globe we are keen to hear more from as this year continues to roll out.
At present, I’m sat in a London pub, poring over notes scrawled on the back of a coaster from the weekend, still piecing it all together, so let’s dive in – day by day, shall we?
Having arrived in Brighton the afternoon before, I took the opportunity to collect my delegate’s pass early to avoid the melee of people the following day. Thoughts instantly went out to the festival crew tasked with establishing TGE HQ in Jubilee Square as the rain would thunder down. The Sounds Australia family established a huge presence for themselves at Komedia for another year, as the 2017 Sound Gallery brought the likes of Dean Lewis, Olympia and Tired Lion to the fore.
Irish folk artist Alibhe Reddy charmed at Bleach shortly after noon; only coming to her music shortly before this trip, I was enamoured by her grace onstage and the way she commanded attention, a command within musicality that would filter through into her Prince Albert showcase on the Friday.
Venturing out slightly, I indulged in some rock-fuelled fare courtesy of BlackWaters – the 18 year olds who already have the likes of Carl Barât and acclaimed producer Spike Stent in their corner. Playing at Bleach on Thursday afternoon, the room’s temperature increased – something I wasn’t sure was possible after the deserving-of-hype Anteros flooded it with catchy indie-pop – and fuck, did BlackWaters turn up to play.
My knowledge about Charlotte Day Wilson was also scarce prior to this trip, though I knew that the Canadian was very much an artist to watch. Set up at the Sallis Benney for an 8:30pm set, hers was a set that remained on my list and though I managed to unfortunately miss the bulk, it’s undeniable that the girl has got the goods.
Elsewhere in the early evening, I found myself by the seaside at the Harbour Hotel & Spa as Joe Fox was setting up for his Marine Room show – a gig that was in a room I knew I was well below the pay bracket of normally being granted access to. Fox’s voice is a gorgeous one and it’s no wonder A$AP Rocky had been captivated by it, at least enough to sample his music on At.Long.Last.A$AP. Unfortunately for Joe, his set was maligned by sound issues by a sound engineer who looked like this was his first rodeo, but in the end, the crowd bore witness to a consummate performer who rolled with the punches and delivered a great time for those who stuck it out.
My attempts to see Aldous Harding perform at the Paganini Ballroom were shorted hours before her start time, thanks to the handy Great Escape app informing users which venues were experiencing large amounts of traffic (at it turned out, Harding’s appearance was at the festival, especially surrounding the release of her album Party, was one that was very much in demand).
Instead, I stuck to the Sallis Benney Theatre, where I would see one Sampa The Great perform for the first of three times over the weekend. Three times is a bit excessive, I hear you mutter as you read this. Lemme tell you something – if you see Sampa and come away from the experience not changed or not wanting more than the 20 minute to half hour set you’re given, we need to be having another conversation altogether, friend. Sort your life.
The comparisons to Tkay Maidza are unavoidable, I learned, overhearing Australians in the crowd drawing the obvious left right and centre. The two artists are apples and oranges though and to compare is slightly pointless. Focusing on Sampa though, I sung her praises fairly strongly here, but my God, we are definitely just scraping the tip of a mammoth iceberg of talent here. With her new HERoes Act 2 EP still fresh in my ears, watching the young Sampa Tembo work her way across the theatre stage and boss up like this wasn’t an industry showcase, but a headline show, was great to see.
The sun finally broke out on Friday when I emerged from my hotel, overpriced pear from Sainsbury’s in hand, ready to go for another day. One great thing about The Great Escape is the outdoor stage on New Road that the festival puts up each year. This year, the Fender Paramount Stage was makeshift party central; with funk, jazz and soul artists braving the cold and putting their brass and guitar instruments to work. A great opportunity for the public and non-TGE wristband holders to be part of the festival, the outdoor environment remained pumping throughout Friday.
Shortly after the annual Sounds Australia luncheon (praise, the Chili Pickle gods), I flung myself over to the One Church on Gloucester Street for the New Zealand showcase, which you can read a little more about here – with the standouts for me being the lo-fi/psych influenced Kane Strang and of course, Aldous Harding. The Lyttleton native is a powerhouse performer that is leagues ahead of the acclaim industry is only now levelling her way off the back of Party‘s release – for me, nothing else I saw on Friday held a torch to that performance in the church.
This isn’t to say the rest of the night was a write off. Friday night brought with it a more dance-ier, raucous vibe, with YOUNGR taking the reins at Coalition, Dream Wife kicking expectations of an all-girl pop act in the dick down at the Wagner Hall and Cabbage bringing punk back to its sweaty, primal basics at The Haunt (which, coincidentally and unfortunately, was a stone’s throw away from my hotel room window – making 5am knock offs outside wonderful to listen to on some nights).
A late message to pop up on the Great Escape app notified us of a cheeky little show by Youths of The Apocalypse – a new band orchestrated by members of both Gorillaz and Klaxons. Held at The Hope & Ruin, we managed to get in near the tail end of the set to an understandably rammed venue. Strip the accolades of their other projects away and this was a band doing their first show in what probably wasn’t an ideal venue or set up. It was rowdy and raucous, but could have been better.
A big shout out to the White Rabbit pub however, for hosting one hell of an Alternative Escape line up – introducing me to Vels Trio out of Brighton (now based in London). A Thundercat/Yussef Kamaal vibe permeated through the young group’s message, resulting in the packed out room bopping their heads and exuding some of the best stank faces seen at The Great Escape, period.
By the time Saturday had rolled around, I was happy to have avoided a bunch of long lines at the venues hosting the marquee/big names, opting instead for the places that were still well-attended but not necessarily on everyone’s must-see list. A method adopted maybe two SXSW’s ago, I felt like The Great Escape’s general vibe was further edging in on the Texan festival’s vibe in this way.
I kicked off my Saturday with two hot cinnamon donuts from that joint on the Brighton Pier and walked over to Patterns, which was hosting the 2017 Aussie BBQ. Moved further in from it’s previous home at Concorde (silently rejoicing at not having to walk the lengths up the marina), the Aussie BBQ instead posted up inside the basement for a warped run through some of Australia’s best at the moment. From Olympia to Gold Class and the likes of Lisa Mitchell and Sampa once more, it was a great selection on Sounds Australia’s behalf.
Now-familiar names continued to float around Brighton as Saturday entered the nighttime program, Bahrain’s Flamingods being one of them. The multi-instrumentalists had The Great Escape and the European tastemaker publications talking early and their set at The Haunt on Saturday was one for the books. Pumarosa and RAY BLK also remained standouts, while the UK’s Sorry and The Big Moon have positioned themselves for quite the year, the latter in particular. If The Big Moon don’t land themselves on a Splendour or Falls Festival line up soon, I’ll eat my hat.
While there were so many artists to take in, our three days and nights at The Great Escape this year was a satisfying one, given we were only capable of catching a relative glimpse of what was on offer. As I mentioned in a previous news grab, the Australian presence at the festival this year seemed more prominent than that of 2016, while the emphasis on emerging artists across the board was definitely highlighted vehemently.
Festivals like The Great Escape are tiring, regardless of whether you are partying until the daylight hours or not – with a jam-packed conference program playing out alongside the live music, it’s enough to make even the biggest music nut weary. It’s these ‘discovery’ branded festivals that remind me why we (myself specifically, anyway) fall in love with live music in the first place. You can be led off the beaten path and into venues you never knew existed, to see a range of bands oozing in diversity, talent and exciting potential.
You’re never going to be fully satisfied, instead you’re going to be wanting more. Looking at my Soundcloud account now The Great Escape is finished for another year, the next few months of new music for me are stacked – to start your own journey, post-event, head to www.thegreatescape.com to check out who performed across the weekend. Well worth it.