I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with The Great Escape Festival. I love that it brings so much new music to Brighton, but I hate that it takes away some of the city’s spirit. My hometown is a hotbed for creativity yet somehow a festival that champions up and coming musicians can dampen it. Perhaps it’s because The Great Escape is more about the music industry, than the music itself. You’ll see the convention visitors waving their company cards in cash-only local eateries, and you’re more likely to overhear a humblebrag (or straight out brag) about someone’s work with an artist than spot somebody singing along. Of course, for me to criticise the heavy presence of press would be hypocritical and I should say #NotAllDelegates, but you still know this festival would be improved if more people cared more about discovering new artists than making contacts. When the music’s good though, none of the hobnobbing matters.
Tibet and Danielle Lewis at The Latest Music Bar. Photos by Amy Jo McLellan.
Alt Scribe’s TGE adventure began with disappointment when we realised Craig David’s acoustic set had been cancelled. However, we set off to the Latest Music Bar to support Welsh music instead. Our Welsh Music Wednesday writer RRW may have been absent, but we were still drawn by her support of BBC’s Gorwelion / Horizons campaign, who were hosting not just one stage, but two. Their clever use of both the bar and basement meant that there were no gaps between acts with each following on seamlessly from each other. We began with the tail-end of Roughion’s electronic set which samples Welsh language, which seemed alien at 2:30pm but would surely work better at 2:30am before heading downstairs to catch Cardiff indie-rockers Tibet. Tibet sounded cool and current – you know the delegates will surely drool over them. Although NME-friendly-indie is not what I would usually listen to, I was impressed. It was Danielle Lewis, though, who particularly stood out. Closing the showcase, I was captivated by her beautiful bilingual songs that were soothing enough to be a lullaby but unique enough to keep your attention. If I hadn’t have snapped up a ticket for Oh Wonder’s spotlight show, a visit to see her later performance at the Brighton Museum would have been a must (as tempting as the best band name of the festival, Have You Ever Seen the Jane Fonda Aerobic VHS? may have been to draw me back to the Latest Music Bar…). Brighton’s culture may get lost in the TGE buzz but, thanks to Gorwelion / Horizons, the spirit of Welsh music was firmly in place.
After breaking off for food (the structure of the festival means the line-up quietens down between daytime and evening to allow for meal-time and industry meet-ups), we headed to Patterns (formerly Audio) to see TRANSVIOLET. I enjoyed what I saw of their electro pop with punk aesthetics but a few songs in, I suddenly realised the time and I had to leave – quick. Leaving my Alt Scribe colleague Dóra behind, I rushed to get a bus across town in time for the supports to Oh Wonder’s separately ticketed show. TGE is known for spreading venues far across Brighton but Oh Wonder’s show at All Saint’s Church saw confused festival goers navigating their way to “Hove, actually”. Despite cutting it incredibly fine, I only missed the very start of Mura Masa’s set (thanks to a late start, presumably to allow time to let in the extremely long queue outside). I initially mistook the singer Bonzai for the named artist, whereas Mura Masa was behind the decks. Despite not knowing who I was watching, I discovered I did know the songs. ‘What If I Go?’ was sending me flashbacks to nights out and although the music would fit better in a Pryzm than a place of worship, I enjoyed their set. As for Shura, although it was more chilled out, I felt the same way – I didn’t know I knew Shura’s music, but I did. Considering ‘Touch’ has over 26 million(!) YouTube views, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Oh Wonder at All Saint’s Church. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
Despite these support acts having had success in their own rights, Oh Wonder remained the headliner. Standing in front of their minimalist yet effective ‘OW’ lighting, the duo performed their deceptively simple songs to perfection. There is no gimmick in their performance (but that’s not to say the strobe lighting of Mura Masa was not extremely impressive). For Oh Wonder, their skill is in making things look easy. As artists who have both performed in different outlets (as the band alluded to on stage), they have now come together to perfect their craft. Their show late last year at The Haunt may have just had the edge, personally, due to the intensity of the intimate setting, but Oh Wonder fans should get used to seeing them in bigger venues because there are no signs of them slowing down.
After Oh Wonder, I headed back into down to the hub at Old Steine gardens – the one part of The Great Escape feels both traditional festival and Brighton, probably because it’s actually the Brighton Fringe Festival’s set-up that TGE takes over for the weekend. I sheltered from the rain in the Spiegeltent and caught Kiko Bun brightening up the night with some reggae. I was only in the venue to keep warm but his happiness was infectious. Once Dóra made it back from Blossoms’s appearance at the Concorde 2, we decided to call it a night ready for a busy day ahead.
Desert Planes at The Mesmerist. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
Often, some of the most enjoyable gigs at The Great Escape Festival come from its fringe sister The Alternative Escape which is free to everyone – regardless of wristbands, or lanyards. We kicked the day off at Desert Planes, who are a duo but appeared as a band, in The Mesmerist. Despite being free to all, the room was mostly full of TGE ticket holders but it was only lunch time. Desert Planes were certainly enjoyable with their catchy yet rock ‘n’ roll sound filling the room.
VEVO’s acoustic stage outside Wagner Hall. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
Sometimes, the free fringe shows make you wonder why you paid for a ticket. However, the teasing of “Very Special Guests” makes you remember why you paid. There was one surprise slot I particularly had my eye on and that was the secret acoustic show on the VEVO stage at 15:30. With the venue’s cancellation of all of Thursday’s daytime gigs, I was hoping the biggest name would reschedule but, sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. While I crossed my fingers for Craig David to emerge, we were greeted by Rukshana Merrise. She had a fantastic warm and welcoming voice but she didn’t sing ‘7 Days’ so I was obviously disappointed. It soon emerged that Jake Bugg would be playing a secret show, in the slot that Lewis Del Mar was billed for, but while everyone else staked their ground to see him, we exited the venue.
The Dunwells at Citadel’s New Road Stage. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
A quick detour took us to another alternative show with Penelope Isles in The Fiddler’s Elbow. Although there were some enthusiastic sways from the crowd, things were a little too trippy for our sober selves. Dóra turned back to Wagner Hall to try and catch Jake Bugg, which she partially succeeded in doing so and you could read about here. Meanwhile I headed to watch The Dunwells. I was drawn to The Dunwells by the festival guide billing them as similar to early The Killers and although they didn’t actually sound like The Killers, I can see where the comparison comes from. They had anthemic choruses and their crowd was the first one I’d seen to contain fans (yes, real fans!). A big group in front of me were air grabbing and singing along with as much passion as drunken revellers when ‘Mr Brightside’ comes on in a club. Despite having never heard the band before, I wanted to join them in singing along. The only problem was that I didn’t know the words, but that won’t be an issue next time.
The Jam Tarts Indie Choir (and Dóra) on New Road. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
After The Dunwells, I spotted Tibet rehearsing in the Pavilion Gardens (nice harmonies, guys!) before being drawn back to New Road by the sound of a choir. This wasn’t just any choir though, this was The Jam Tarts Indie Choir performing songs by the likes of David Bowie and The Smiths. Unsurprisingly, they’re based in Brighton. Watching them, I almost forgot I was at The Great Escape. The outdoor crowd of all ages swaying to a choral version of Kaiser Chiefs reminded me of the spontaneous sights that Brighton is known for. The magic of my city was back!
Callum Beattie at Brighton Unitarian Church. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
For the evening, we began in one of my favourite but rarely used venues, the Brighton Unitarian Church. Delta Rae’s show their last year was a stand-out performance of the festival and although Callum Beattie’s music is not as spiritual, the religious setting still matched perfectly with his performance. His songs were relatively simple yet captivating. Let’s just say I expect him to appear on radio playlists very soon.
After having chilled down, we heated things up again with SWMRS in The Hope & Ruin. Although they were Dóra’s favourite act of the festival, they didn’t impress me as much. The band’s between-songs chat repeatedly referred to the industry workers in the audience which, even with my own uneasiness with the high level of business presence, felt awkward. The most cringe-worthy was their call for everyone – regardless of where they worked – to take part in a wall of death. Around 10 people did. As for their music, it was standard good old-fashioned reasonably safe punk. Nothing to complain about, but not much to write home about either – aside from the song about Miley Cyrus. ‘Miley’ has a melody that’s almost as memorable as ‘We Can’t Stop’ (but not as iconic as ‘Wrecking Ball‘). Although I have to confess, I haven’t always understood the antics of Cyrus – I recently wrote my undergraduate dissertation on her and my opinion has consequently changed – I wanted to cheer when they sang “Miley is a punk rock queen”. I just can’t help thinking that Cyrus might be more punk rock than SWMRS…
Middlemist Red at The Marlborough Pub & Theatre. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
After SWMRS, we walked across town to see Middlemist Red. We supported Wales in honour of RRW, and The Jam Tarts Indie Choir represented Brighton so it would be rude not to see a band fly the Hungarian flag for Dóra. Despite their origins, Middlemist Red sounded like a British indie band, but with cooler lighting effects. Bands who are playing the upstairs room of a pub (ok, ok, The Marlborough’s is also a theatre space) don’t usually have such a great back-drop but it was a welcome surprise. Once their short-but-sweet set ended, we foolishly headed to the Pier on the off-chance Black Honey wouldn’t be at capacity. It turned out to be so full that security were preventing people from stepping foot on the pier as the queue outside the Horatio’s pub on the strip was already overwhelming. A stroll along the seafront later and we briefly saw Without Letters but realising we weren’t in the mood for electronica, we headed back up into the city to catch Little Hours at the Brighthelm Centre. Little Hours had a strong stage presence with humour, taking advantage of a sound issue to make quips about a mischievous bird being behind the ‘chirps’. Little Hours have previously supported Kodaline, and they are the perfect fit – both emotional, atmospheric and unmistakably Irish. What’s not to love? We finished the day trying (and failing) to gain entry to Blossoms but Little Hours were the last band we fully saw.
Ruth Koleva at the Spiegeltent. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
The final day begun with rain and tired feet. Starting the day with Ruth Koleva sat down indoors was a good decision. Dressed in a Lady Gaga-esque flesh-coloured leotard with a bold jacket, Koleva looked the part but, like Gaga also, she has a powerful voice to back up her image. Koleva bills herself as “Nu Soul/ Nu Jazz / Funk” and although these influences were evident, Koleva’s most memorable track ‘Run’ was pure pop ballad with a fantastic hook and as much power as the key change in an X Factor winner’s single. To paraphrase Louis Walsh, she looked like a pop star, sounded like a pop star – she is a pop star (and being “pop” is no bad thing).
Our plan to see Clean Cut Kid next was almost thwarted when the venue reached capacity whilst we were queuing. The band begun whilst we were outside but luckily we made it in a short while into their set – just! We were the last two people admitted into the venue and the fact that nobody else exited the Komedia during their set shows just how captivating Clean Cut Kid were. Their musicianship instantly impressed me and I was drawn in by their humour also. They had played the Brighthelm centre before Little Hours on Friday, and in retrospect giving up on Black Honey and seeing those two play one after the other would have been a better way to spend the evening. However, Clean Cut Kid still brought an electric atmosphere to an afternoon gig. ‘Vitamin C’ had everyone bopping and their guitar work had me desperately wanting more. In fact, as soon as they had finished I looked online to buy their album to find out they hadn’t yet released one. Clean Cut Kid, I’m keeping my eye out for.
We then walked across town for Carnival Youth, who I could neither see nor hear well, before returning to the Komedia for Boy Jumps Ship. Boy Jumps Ship is a name I’ve heard around for years so I was surprised when I learnt their debut album only came out this year. Although I’d have to admit that I’ve largely grown out of my pop-punk teenage fandom, they had a harder rock edge than I expected. I was impressed by their set, but I also insisted on seeing Chaps Choir after so perhaps I have got too old… After briefly catching Theo Bard, we headed to the Synergy Centre to sit down.
Mahalia at The Synergy Centre. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
Further evidence of my ageing self was that, I was particularly impressed by Mahalia’s acoustic and chilled out set in the Synergy Centre but ISLE’s intensely amplified rock set had me cursing that I’d forgotten my earplugs. Thankfully, the kind staff at Patterns supplied me with some so I could dance to WHITE without permanently damaging my hearing. WHITE’s set was a happy accident as we had only ended up there due to the queue of Mystery Jets being unsurprisingly overwhelming. With the app listing David Bowie alongside their name, I knew they were worth checking out. I’m unsure if the app (which, I must add, is the best the festival has ever had) was stating that Bowie was their influence or it was recommending fans of Bowie to check them out, but either way I was sold. WHITE made me want to dance which is why we then decided to head to Coalition to ensure we wouldn’t miss St. Lucia.
On our way to Coalition, we caught the end of Zak Abel (from outside) whose music was extremely familiar and contagious. A bit of googling since and I’ve realised ‘Everybody Needs Love’ features in a TESCO F&F clothing advert. He may not have been a big name on the line-up but I’m expecting big things from him soon.
In Coalition, we began the end of our festival experience with LISS – a Danish soulful pop band who have been receiving critical hype, and quite understandably so. Sadly, things didn’t go so smoothly for Jadu Heart who were up next. They were originally billed to play after St. Lucia but were moved to play before, with their set cut from a billed 45 minutes to just 30. It seemed an unusual change as Jadu Heart’s electronic sound would surely sound better the later. Perhaps the mix-up contributed to their unfortunate technical issues but in spite of this, Jadu Heart maintained a respectable crowd.
St. Lucia at Coalition. Photo by Amy Jo McLellan.
The last band we saw were St. Lucia – a fun synth pop group who owned the room as if it was their own headline show, not a festival appearance. Some keen fans gathered at the front to sing along (bonus points to those I recognised from The Dunwells’ crowd), but everyone was willing to respond to call-and-answer commands. St. Lucia were everything you would want in a band to close off a festival but perhaps The Great Escape might want to think about booking them earlier too. St. Lucia left everyone wanting more. They warmed up the crowd perfectly, but then the party was over. We exited the venue and the delegates’ queue was replaced with eager clubbers. Brighton was back to normal, but I’m ok with The Great Escape borrowing it for three days a year. Just so long as they promise to provide promising acts like St. Lucia, Clean Cut Kid, The Dunwells, Danielle Lewis (and The Jam Tarts Indie Choir, of course) again.
All photos, including header photo of Little Hours at The Brighthelm Centre, by Amy Jo McLellan (taken using an iPhone).
Read Dóra’s opinion of The Great Escape here.