We rush frantically with gay abandon from venue to venue in the hope of catching the next big thing; we consume social media updates in a vain attempt to avoid the queues that build around the most hyped and most popular; we feel awkward and slightly guilty when using our delegate privilege to jump in front of 'normal' punters who are enviously waiting to watch their new favourite band. This sprawling mass of urban thrill is The Great Escape. Brighton rocks. Wish you were here.
Here I am watching a 'secret' Paul Weller gig. It's the Saturday afternoon and I've walked from my hostel accommodation (there's no camping at this festival) through the trendy North Laines area and towards the Old Market in Hove where this 500 capacity show is taking place. It's being put on by Amazon, filmed by them for later use on a media channel. Never really getting Weller since his Style Council days, I'm suffering for my art here. I'm promised beer by the cheery PR person who sorts out my media pass. That doesn't surface but the cranberry juice that I bought en route from a local newsagent probably goes down better. I am a changing man. He plays a competent set and I begrudgingly accept that his new stuff stacks up. Others, lucky in the secret ballot and able to get up this morning, to queue for their golden tickets at 7.00AM, appear genuinely delighted to have seen their idol perform. It is a postcard moment.
I won't deny that I didn't have a lovely time beside the seaside. But, the Weller gig is indicative of some of the problems I found with The Great Escape. This is a world in which corporate business and delegates rule; it's a world in which the content of your delegate badge is almost as important as the music appearing on the stage; it's a world in which the 'often great' new music across the many venues simply becomes a new music business opportunity. It's a world full of showcases from around the world in which popularity is defined by the size of your queue and the ability of your PR team. Tickets have sold out and this is its tenth year so clearly this is a world accepted by many.
Let's go back to the beginning. Thursday lunchtime and I get off the train at Brighton's impressive station. It's raining. My trip to the seaside was not meant to be like this. A short walk down to the Brighton Dome where I'm able to collect my delegate pass. Later in the afternoon, the queue for collecting these photo passes snakes down the road so I appear to have timed this one well. I chuckle at the sweet irony of delegates having to queue to collect their access. Inside the dome building, there's a throng of activity going on; people are networking over cake, coffee and beer. I imagine this is an offshoot of the very rich and varied delegate programme that is scheduled.
I'm here to watch bands and this is the closest that I get to the delegate programme all weekend. But, if I was so inclined I could have gone to seminars about fixing music marketing, the point of record labels and how we got to the new wave of grime. In fairness, this convention programme is wide-ranging and epic. The UK Trade and Investment and The British Council are not sponsoring a damp squib here.
I peruse the programme and find myself overwhelmed by the choice even though we're barely into the Thursday afternoon. This is clearly kid in a sweet shop territory for the likes of me. There's more than enough to keep me amused within the official schedule but then I turn to the back of the programme to discover an 'alternative escape' as well. Throughout the weekend, I ask what the difference is between this and the main event. Nobody seems able to give me an answer. "It's more new acts playing at more Brighton pubs that aren't on the official list", is the best anybody comes up with. My weekend just got even busier.
Indeed, it's on the 'alternative escape' that my musical journey begins. The North Laines pub is close to my hostel so I poke my head around the door. What a great pub this is. Brewing their own beers in all manner of production line contraption, I marvel at it all. An accidental wave of my press pass also gets me a reduction in price. A band begins at one end of the space. They're loud and anonymous. Some 'in the know' types nod their heads in cool reflection. I never find out the name of this band though, according to the programme, they're that well known festival act, TBC.
There's a lot going on in Brighton during May. Banners and flags advertise the Brighton Festival and the Brighton Fringe that's also taking place. Julian, an old friend from Bristol, now runs the Fringe and so I meet him at the Spiegelpub, a tent placed next to the much larger Spiegeltent, a Fringe venue given over to The Great Escape for the weekend. Those familiar with the Pussy Parlure at Glastonbury will know the shape of this tent; a large, round yurt like space with wooden flooring and alcoves in which to hide. It's lovely to catch up with Julian after almost twenty years. We take in a South African showcase. Jeremy Loops astonishes the crowd with his lively, loop-filled show that will surely become a festival mainstay of future years. Later, across the weekend, I see Acollective from Israel in here; another act who get the floor bouncing with their enthusiasm.
I make sure I see some bands that I've seen before and enjoyed. During my only visit to Sticky Mikes Frog Bar, I peer over the heads of a packed in like sardines crowd to get a glimpse of Happyness. Their recently re-released album 'Weird Little Birthday' is still a regular listen on my car stereo. Live, they've toned down their Pavement elements and emphasised the Wilco sound. It's here that I get chatting to local Brighton resident, Pete. He becomes my gig buddy for the weekend. He knows the shortcuts between venues in this town and can also read a programme under torchlight having consumed copious amounts of beer. He's marked all of the Canadian acts out in his programme because past experience suggests this is a route to quality. On Saturday afternoon/evening, we stand in 'The Arch' together whilst enjoying the indie-pop of Oscar, part of a Noisey showcase. We amuse ourselves by finding comparisons. For me, Oscar are all Magnetic Fields but Pete nails it better by picking out the bits of their Orange Juice influence.
The showcase is an unavoidable aspect of the Great Escape make up. I'm charmed downstairs at the Queens Hotel on Thursday afternoon and thoroughly enjoy the two free beers I'm given as I watch a showcase from The Hague. At the arches of the train station at the Green Door store, I'm given a croissant for breakfast on Friday lunchtime as I take in a Canadian takeover. I pop across the road to the wonderful Prince Albert pub where upstairs there's an afternoon of the Irish. All Tvvins get marked in my imaginary notebook as a band I ought to see again whereas The Riptide Movement just move my bowels.
It's here at the Prince Albert on the Thursday evening that I satisfy my lean towards Radio 2 territory by watching Ward Thomas. Two beautiful sisters from Hampshire singing Nashville-fuelled harmonies. You can almost forgive the incredible middle-classness of it all.
It's Friday afternoon and I'm not entirely sure how I got here. I am sat in a gypsy caravan on Brighton Pier having my tarot read. My tongue is firmly in my cheek as I'm given the well-rehearsed pep talk, reserved for cynics, from the clairvoyant. I'm feeling a bit ropey from the previous night and I ask if I'm going to survive the weekend. "Tell me that I'm not going to die this weekend", I probe. "Oh, you'll be safe and sound. You'll see lots of great music," reveals the tarot reader with a sly glimpse at my wristband.
My reason for being on the pier is the live music in Horatio's bar at the end. Horatio's is a fab period history palace, a proper bar that has resisted that modernising refit and has stuck with red floral carpets and ornate pillars. There's a run of fine bands on here today as part of the alternative escape. There's little mention of this Firetrap/Spindle promoted effort within any of the official literature but the line up is good enough for me to sit here for hours, away from the hustle and bustle of the main event. Jack and Eliza give us some summery US pop before Is Tropical bewilder and excite with their 'impossible to pigeonhole' live set. This is the third time I've seen them live over the last few years and each time I could be forgiven for thinking that they're a different band, such is the variety they inject.Dry The River headline the night in Horatio's. You can't help thinking that with a little more publicity queues would be stretching down this iconic pier much like they currently are across the rest of the town.
I've signed up to The Great Escape text app. Periodically (pretty much every hour) across the weekend, I receive a text telling me that 'x' venue is currently rammed to the rafters but I could try 'y' because there's room at that inn. An hour later, I receive a text telling me that 'y' is choc-a-block but I should try 'x' because the very hyped bright young things have just finished there. The text app is a useful gadget to have but I decide on an alternative way to plan. Avoid the venues where NME cover stars and bands hyped by the machine are about to play and choose to watch acts that you've hardly heard of.
It's by applying such logic that I end up watching one of my bands of the weekend. Passepied are from Japan. They have a kimono wearing lead singer who sparkles as she sings over the top of a band who might describe themselves as prog-pop. She's an oriental Kate Bush, a Wuthering heights remixed for a discotheque. Frankly, it's one of the most exhiliarating, joyful band performances of the weekend. I spot Steven and Gillian from New Order watching this highlight intently. Outside, a punter confirms that it was also one of the moments of his weekend. "So much better than watching another band of beard-laden bespectacled hipsters staring into their laptops", he summarises and I concede he's right.
I'm sure that residents of Brighton realise how lucky they are that a festival such as this takes place on their doorstep. Gig buddy Pete certainly values it. There's a whopping amount of cool venue across this town. Some of it even comes as a surprise to Pete. The queues beat us to get into the Songhoy Blues show (promotion on Jools Holland still has pulling power) so instead we dip into Brighton Museum. We buy a can of beer from a counter and sup on the lager whilst wandering aimlessly around strange curio; artefacts that would mess with our sanity if our drug choice was more hallucinogenic. There are acoustic shows on here but they seem to be running half an hour in advance of the programme time. Somebody called Charlie comes to the end of his set. I want to see more. We take a lift down one flight of stairs in this museum with an impeccably dressed woman, dowsed in a heavy perfume. "Do you like the idea of the Museum hosting The Great Escape?" she asks. We nod enthusiastically about this particularly surreal experience. "I'm the Museum Director", she reveals. I hope this becomes a fixture of this festival.
Churches get in on the action as well, none more so than the Brighthelm centre. This is a modern building, usually jumping to the hymns of a Methodist or United Reformed congregation but for this weekend only bouncing to an altogether different faith. I love Admiral Fallow's first album and look forward to seeing them play here. But wilfully, they choose a set list made up from songs on an album that very few in the crowd seem familiar with. Good old Scottish miserabilists.
It's important to go out with a bang. Pete and I have picked a decent run of acts across the Saturday evening. I've heard a little bit of hype surrounding the up and coming poppy hip-hop of Alo Wala. She bounds onto the stage at the Dome Theatre with more energy than I have at the end of three long days. But, this is contagious stuff. Reminiscent of M.I.A., it's very hard not to be charmed as she flirts with audience members that she entices onto the stage. It's one of those packed out sweaty gigs and it helps me to remember why I first enjoyed going to gigs. Everybody's smiling; everybody's dancing; there are no cares in this world. Despite some reservation, Brighton has ultimately impressed.
It's only those left outside in the queues that are sad.
latest on this festival
inc. AJ Tracey, Children of Zeus, Drax Project, Greentea Peng, Maisie Peters, Mykki Blanco, & more
line-ups & rumours
video of the day
video of the day