The month of May - four day weeks with bank holidays and the promise of summer to follow. Unpredictable weather - four seasons in one day; hail can follow sunshine and the rain can leave us jumping over puddles whilst our sun tan lotion smears. But we know it's nearly time for getting the canvas of our tents out again for another festival season. And to begin it all, we make our customary trip to the seaside. The Great Escape is back in Brighton and we're determined to experience all of its glory.
I last ventured down to Brighton for this epic concurrence of industry types and up and coming bands from across the globe four years ago. I've always wanted to go back but life has got in the way. It's my sort of thing; rushing between the venues dotted around Brighton in the hope of beating the queues and seeing the next big thing. You learn to deal with the disappointment when a friend texts and says that you've just missed another post-punk cracker from Russia for you're currently watching a Dutch hip-hop gem. Ostensibly, it's the same festival as four years ago and yet things have changed as well.
The main difference for me - new to me but not new this year - is the addition of the beach site. I navigate around the venues in the town by using the mapping system on my phone. But the phone doesn't find 'The Dive Bar' when I look for it and I now know why. These are temporary structures; a festival site within the festival. Two long tents on either side of the pebbled compound alternate between bands. They've got capacity to host many down here and so it's where some of the more popular, better-known bands of the weekend tread the stones. In between the tents, there's a smaller outdoor stage and various food places. It's like a 'proper' festival, albeit a bit of a stroll along the prom from the rest of the action. It takes effort to get to the Beach site and I'm sure many don't leave once they have. But when I'm on the beach, the wind blusters and the rain falls; it's bleak and the music I see doesn't grab me: Tim Atlas and Girl In Red both bore me. I head off looking for other sweets.
Another space that I don't recall from four years ago is the Jubilee Square area. A road is blocked off from traffic and a carnival street-party ensues. People mingle, chat and eat from the food stalls (they also pick up their wristbands from the box office) whilst a fine array of bands play amidst a temporary structure in the square. Perspex sheeting protects us from the more precipitous proceedings and acts as a greenhouse when the sun shines. Early(ish) on the Thursday, Malphino become early contenders for set of the weekend with their sunny take on world music. Coming from an imaginary island, they introduce us to national anthems, tropical rhythm and infectious grooves. It's hard not to smile.
There's more than enough to see and do during The Great Escape but to really complicate your planning you have the additional delights of The Alternative Escape. Hosted by venues and promoters not part of the main set-up, these are mostly free events and open to all. Keep your ear to the ground and your eyes on social media and I dare say that you could happily find enough going on within The Alternative Escape to avoid the need to purchase a full wristband. Without doubt, it's in Alternative Escape venues that I catch some of 2019 highlights.
The Admiral is a fine pub a fair walk out of Brighton. I'm here on the Saturday night, the last night of the festival, to see Life play a secret show. The Admiral has admirably had a fine line up all weekend as part of The Alternative Escape and I'm disappointed to find it so late in proceedings. The tasty pint I buy costs me £3; the staff, informed and chatty, say it's been a belter. Nothing prepares us for what's about to happen.
Life are from Hull. I know this with some certainty because singer, Mez, tells us about four times during this set. He also mentions how much he hates Tories. Friends who have seen Life a few times during this festival tell me that Mez, Mick et al are much more sober than last night when they witnessed the band ending their gig as a ball, huddled and crumpled up on the floor. They have boundless energy; the Humber punks climb on tables and take it in turns to rush amongst the crowd. There’s a skill in this commotion. It's amazing that the music remains tight and that injuries don’t occur. It’s frantic beauty, exhilarating and a pure riot. I’m so glad that I made the choice to end my festival in this pub. Madonnatron play next. A four piece that aren’t half bad themselves, they can’t quite match what has gone before.
If punk or post punk is your thing you won’t have felt short-changed by acts at this year’s Great (and alternative) escape. Perhaps the success of Idles and Fontaines DC (both past Great Escape acts) is responsible for this resurgence but I see a fair few interesting examples of the genres. Haze are without doubt a decent proposition; I'd seen them before but they're clearly continuing to improve and more than merit the accolade for first band I see (Thursday lunchtime upstairs in the East Street Tap, part of the Alternative Escape). Peeping Drexels open proceedings on the Friday down in Three Wise Cats, the Casablanca Jazz Club. They make a great racket but so packed is it, I can't see their stage antics. The Wants come recommended and all the way from Brooklyn, New York. They don't disappoint with their angular poses and off-kilter manner upstairs in the East Street Tap, a venue that can hold no more than thirty. It definitely has potential for an 'I was there' moment.
Roxy Girls don't hit those heights in the One Church - they're simply shouty with little to set them apart though maybe the echo within this cavernous space cramps their style. The award for buzz post-punkers of this festival though surely has to go to The Murder Capital. Fresh from their tour with Idles (as indeed are Life), these young lads represent another of Ireland's hope for world domination. Yes, I might have mistaken their lead singer for a lost wedding guest in urinal conversation (his smart suit deceived and I felt every part the fool I should) but once he took to the stage there was no doubting the star quality. Some wondered if style here was reigning over substance but the queues that snaked around the block from the Paganini ballroom would indicate otherwise.
On the subject of queues, it is still a nut that The Great Escape has to crack. I incur the wrath of many by sporting a delegate pass that gets me easier access to venues but it's still not unusual to find myself waiting outside a venue when a band I want to see play inside. Goodness knows how those who are waiting in an epic queue must feel. The secret it seems is to always get to a gig you really want to see well in advance. As one punter proudly tells me, "Some of my best Great Escape moments have come when I've stumbled upon the act on stage before the one I really wanted to see". Things tend get busier in the evenings but there's no predictability for these things. Many use their social media networks as scouting tools, dispatching advance parties to check out the lie of the ground and availability of space.
There's a run of bars and clubs in the arches on Brighton seafront that might typically host foam parties and pop singalongs. Their range of beer is not as great as the traditional pub venues in town. Here you'll get two for a tenner offers on bottles of Heineken and none of the trendy range of craft you'll find elsewhere. The spaces are less welcoming and have names like 'Shoosh', 'Coalition' and 'The Hideout'. They're venues you might avoid unless you're visiting Brighton for a stag or hen celebration but, for this weekend only, they're also Great Escape spaces. And, despite the better efforts of security guards in these night clubs, I still do get to see some interesting acts down here.
Perhaps none more so than February Montaine on the Thursday. Sam Potter, ex of Late Of The Pier, has a new project and it's one of high concept. It's the best, most beguiling back-story and set-up of the weekend. February was a lo-fi bedroom artist from Derbyshire who produced a set of tapes from 1988 to 1991. February went missing (you suspect suicide) and the tapes lay undiscovered until a chance conversation between Sam and February's daughter. Sam and his band decide to bring the music of February to a new audience and to modernise his music, a tribute to an act that very few, if nobody, have previously heard of. Sam urges us all to invoke upon the spirit of February. We're calling his ghost from the grave in an attempt at all things occult, a seance within a gig. The music might need a bit of honing in truth but the sense of mystery prevails long after the band have left the stage. You're left not quite sure if February actually existed or is simply a figment of Sam's over-active mind. Whatever, it's a haunting show that plays with your sense of reality.
Twenty four hours later and just along from where February Montaine plays, I see Jockstrap in Shoossh. It's hard to avoid Jockstrap in Brighton (there, I said it) and this is their second gig of the weekend. They let their music do the confounding never settling on a particular genre for longer than a few minutes. Always interesting, Taylor sits pensively observant, whilst mixing and producing a crazy mound of sound; mash-ups, bossa nova beats and spoken word extracts are all there. Georgia sings over the top in delightful jazz-pop fashion. It's highly inventive, pretty unique stuff, delicate in places and raucous in others and there's no wonder that they're tipped for the top by many. If only the crowds would Shoossh a bit!
In Coalition, just along from Shoossh, I get to see Self Esteem. Rebecca Lucy Taylor has been a firm favourite of mine ever since I first saw Slow Club. Her voice does magical things and to get the full effect you really need to see her in a live setting. Self Esteem is a markedly different project from Slow Club. This is Rebecca's girl band pop phase. Coming on stage with a couple of other singers, this takes the best parts of Girls Aloud, All Saints and The Supremes to conjure up effortless smiles. The material, often about heartbreak, is masked by dance routines and Rebecca's self-deprecating manner. It's that voice though that pure and simply connects.
And Self Esteem are not the only female-fronted pop act able to turn heads. Just as post-punk is a genre on the rise so to, it would appear, is the appetite for dynamic electronica with soaring vocals. 5K HD swoop in from Austria and pack out the Prince Albert. Broen offer a harder-edged psych based electronica up in the spacious Sallis Benney Theatre, part of the University complex (and a fine venue as well). Wovoka Gentle might not be on top form at Horatio's (out on Brighton Pier). I speak as somebody who has loved this trio since randomly seeing them at Nozstock. But still, there's no denying that their wonky and woozy, lilting folk-edged harmonies captivate many.
I turn up in the Komedia on Saturday afternoon keen to see Dutch band, Eut, having missed the chance earlier this year. But the Komedia has an upstairs and downstairs bar and I get in a muddle between the two. I decide that I'm going to get my first pint of the day and head towards the bar. I order and am about to pay when the bar-person spots the delegate pass around my neck. "Oh, it's free for you this afternoon", I'm told. On further investigation, this is the Swiss music delegation party. I had no idea. Across town, delegates are invited to sausage, weissbier, meatball, whisky and haggis promotions, all with the express aim of getting that country's hot new thing thrust into their horizon.
The Swiss offering I get to see whilst drinking the beer and chewing a complimentary sandwich (the venue's warm and the cheese within almost bubbles) is Long Tall Jefferson. Initially his set dips into obvious blues and country and I'm not impressed but a few tunes in, Jefferson switches tack and gets all Bright Eyes crossed with The Beatles. The literate songwriting stands out and I'm glad that I persevered.
The Great Escape is all about keeping your mind open and writing off nothing. From the Swiss music party in the Komedia studio, I head down to the larger venue where Fata Boom are about to take to the stage. On paper, I should hate this. Fata Boom are a costume-laden Dutch hip-hop act. In truth, they're probably not far removed from the musical aberrations of 90's dance such as 2Unlimited and Technotronics. Fata Boom are a trio. Whilst one guy DJs, the other two (male and female) effervescently and enthusiastically rap along. There's an Egyptian theme going on in terms of costume as the music bounces between cheesy techno and Bhangra pop. Ass cheeks are tantalisingly, seedingly and shockingly waved towards us as the chap in Fata Boom hitches his tunic. They sing of alcohol and crazy nights and are decadent, party animals. I might never feel compelled to listen to Fata Boom on record but I'd always want to be part of their gang. A truly unexpected weekend highlight.
I've only scratched at the surface of The Great Escape. You can't be everywhere at once and I've no doubt that choices I made precluded me from seeing some wonderful shows elsewhere. At some point, I should get myself along to one of TGE's showcase gigs but this year I overlooked Lewis Capaldi, Easy Life and Foals. Again, despite my best intentions, I barely snuck my head around the door of the Jury's Inn Waterside to dip into the extensive conference on offer. Similarly, I hardly spent time in the AIM conference and parties at the Queens Hotel. I did, however, have a great, short chat with Big Jeff Johns, the legendary gig-goer from Bristol, as we waited for French indie-popsters, Le SuperHomard, to play their gig there. Le SuperHomard were super-enticing, a great way to bring my Friday night to a close.
The Great Escape is highly regarded by both punters and delegates and it's easy to see why. In the week before it all kicks off - and in the week after, its influence ripples and cascades. Here in London this week, various Country delegations are hosting post Great Escape parties for those that couldn't get their fill in Brighton. It's a mega-beast of a festival yet one that has somehow managed to maintain a great heart. Perhaps that's because Brighton has such warm community enterprise at the core. I had a great time and have already pre-booked accommodation for 2020.
latest on this festival
someone can't count: there's only 34
line-ups & rumours
festival home page
video of the day