Feature: The Great Escape
By Mark Corcoran-Lettice on May 18, 2012 in Music
It’s only a ten minute walk from alighting at Brighton railway station to the Corn Exchange where the delegate passes are being doled out for The Great Escape 2012 (enough time though, it turns out, for the rain to soak through nicely for the remainder of the afternoon), but the distance between civilian life and the music industry hive that is The Great Escape is vast.
Quite simply, this is a festival that isn’t designed for punters or for your music fan on the street: if anything, you’re an unwanted distraction to the procession of buzz bands and wannabe next-big-things touting their wares for an increasingly jaded, doom-laden and inebriated collective of writers, bloggers and all-round media infantry. If, however, you remove from your expectations any thoughts of what a music festival usually focuses around –and, more importantly, have one of those queue-jumping blue delegate wristbands – it’s quite possible to treat The Great Escape as a strange other-worldly playground where the music press still matters. And that, dear reader, is exactly what we did.
That said, the Thursday proved something of a challenge to me and my colleague. With a mixture of bad weather, some ridiculous bottlenecks (it becomes swiftly obvious that nobody was getting in to Django Django unless they’d been queuing since the last Great Escape) and navigating Brighton, it didn’t quite go as planned. Still, there were some good discoveries to be had.
German songwriter Dillon put forth a promising blend of plaintive piano hymnals and Lykke Li-styled goth-pop, while Australia’s Ben Salter displayed a fine voice and a winning way with Elliot Smith ballads – just a shame about the astonishingly ill-advised, milquetoast Smoky Robinson cover at the end. Less glorious are self-described boogie-woogie rock revivalists The Sheepdogs, whose set operates less as a work of musical performance than as a vast existential void being torn in the heart of the universe. But hey, Q magazine will probably like it.
After suffering through the world’s worst Joy Division cover courtesy of Spoek Mathambo, the dazzling alt-hip-hop of Shabazz Palaces marks the day’s first big success story. While some of the nuances of their deep, textured productions are lost in the confines of the Coalition nightclub they’ve been placed, it’s still a challenging and intelligent performance from an exciting act. Rounding off our night though is the astonishing onslaught of Cloud Nothing’s aural firestorm of a set. If this year’s Steve Albini-produced Attack On Memory drew a line in the sand between their earlier dream-pop sound and the tougher punk/post-hardcore their new line-up proffers, their current live show throws down a gauntlet to every other punk act touring right now.
Every track is suffused with toughness but also looseness, Dylan Baldi’s hoarse shouts driving forward a dexterous assault that reaches its peak in an astonishing twenty-minute take on Wasted Days. Taking the album cut’s guitar breakdown as a launching pad, the band build up an intense wall of sound whose closest ancestor has to be the ‘holocaust’ section of a My Bloody Valentine gig, but one that places drummer Jayson Gerycz in the driving seat, ramping up the tension and pressure to glorious heights until diving back into the song proper to the ecstatic screams of one thoroughly mind-blown audience. Our screaming eardrums plead for an early night, but really what could top such a confident and fierce performance?
Friday then, and with the sun finally shining, the Dutch convention hit upon the smart idea of offering us press types free drinks and barbeque to get the punters down to the dank, dripping pit that is Digital (yep, it’s just as bad as the one in Newcastle). It’s to a surprisingly healthy crowd then that the industrial synth-pop of Agent Side Grinder is pushed. While it’s a sound and look about as far from indie notions of ‘cool’ as it’s possible to be in 2012, their mix of Depeche Mode filth and Kraftwerk melodies as delivered by a Brett Anderson-esque frontman makes for a welcome new discovery that, honestly, would have been good even without the freebies. There’s also time that afternoon for some very enjoyable sets from Jonquil (whose transformation from subdued folk to math-funk is, it would appear, very much complete) and a returning Hatcham Social, who deliver a whip crack set of ramshackle indie thrills to one of the weekend’s most enthusiastic crowds.
Even with a media pass though, it’s clear that Friday’s big draw is going to draw demand far beyond capacity, so unsurprisingly the room is full for the much-hyped Grimes over an hour before stage time, leaving a queue full of unsurprisingly disgruntled members of Joe Public. (Hey, I never said it was right, but seriously: this is not a festival designed for you guys. Sorry.) Support act Half Moon Run offer an enjoyable, if seriously Radiohead-indebted, set to a room full of people largely seeing them as a distraction to the main event, and when they’re cut off early to keep things on schedule, it’s hard not to feel they’ve drawn the short straw a little here. Thankfully though, after a somewhat subdued start, Grimes’ set more than delivers on the expectation placed on her shoulders. Eschewing the usual play-the-album inertia of most laptop bands (something which, it has to be said, the otherwise enjoyable Forest Swords fell victim to later that night), Claire Boucher twists her songs into more dynamic, dance floor-friendly beasts, and flanked by a pair of corpse-painted backing dancers, she brings out the joy and enthusiasm as well as the melancholy in her material – if nothing else, it’s impossible to imagine any songs going down better this weekend than Oblivion and Genesis do during her set. With Friday also seeing us catch the always dependable noise of The Twilight Sad (although – whisper it – the new record still isn’t a patch on the first two, which their setlist exposes quite plainly) and research a few other smaller acts, including the brilliantly stylised and in-your-face synth-pop of local Brighton duo Curxes, it’s a far more successful day than the Thursday.
Saturday afternoon then passes in a blur of hyped bands and wild punts (i.e. the stuff of which music journalism is made – it’s all perspiration and luck really, darling), with American rockers The Big Sleep and Australian folk collective Inland Sea both putting in fairly run-of-the-mill shows while Irish rockers We Cut Corners entertain with their Japandroids-esque guitar rush and some of the weekend’s funniest lyrics (a choice example including “My mother died in childbirth/ We haven’t really spoken since”) and our very own Hyde & Beast delighting a large audience at The Haunt with a warm-hearted set of psychedelic pop. With many of the assembled talent scouts and hacks seemingly too hungover or apathetic to make the evening shows, Saturday night holds a curiously unenergetic feel in many of Brighton’s venues, even despite the best efforts of Solar Bears, whose pounding beasts sound like a sped-up, more accessible take on drone-dance overlords Fuck Buttons. Rounding off our festival then is the one-two punch of Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny, who demonstrates how road-hardened and impressive her material sounds now with her supreme backing band to the raptures of a rabid fan base, and EMA, who fleshes out the dark poetry of her debut album Past Lives Martyred Saints into a sprawl of Sonic Youth guitars and Patti Smith stage presence: quite where she goes on album two isn’t clear, but by rights it ought to be one hell of a journey to watch out for.
So: there were buzz bands and buzz bloggers, gigs that even freebies couldn’t attract the industry carrion to, gigs so oversubscribed there seemed to be a two-blog minimum entry requirement, and some rather fine performances in the beautiful venues of Brighton. It’s one happening turn of a party all right – just you already have to be in on the scene to even get a sniff of it.
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