Top 10 Acts @ The Great Escape – Various Venues, Brighton, May 10-12 2012
The Great Escape is now widely seen as the premier festival for new music in Europe. Or at least that’s what it claims on the snazzy tote-bag I was given.
Located on the sometimes-sunny south coast in Brighton, anyone with even the most tenuous link to ‘the business’ descends for three nights of music and three days of very intense hangovers. Musika sent me on a mission to find the best 10 bands I could find. Not only did I discover some awesome bands and renew my love for others, I also got shat on by a seagull. Now, if that’s not a festival selling point, I don’t know what is…
The novelty of watching a band in a pub at the end of the pier (which is normally reserved for gypsy karaoke) was only heightened by the appearance of the most-hyped band in the world. Friends, as it turns out, much to my surprise are worth all the talk about them. The Brooklyn six-piece grooved and grinded their way through an orgy of hipster indie-funk. With more sex appeal than a Friday night in Stringfellows, vocalist Samantha Urbani leaped over the barrier to get better acquainted with the crowd – much to their delight. Urbani sarcastically introduced one song as ‘international hit number one’, which was perhaps a slight dig at their predicted global takeover. Oddly, there were no songs that really sounded like they would be bothering the charts any time soon. Instead, it is the carefree fun of their live show which will see this band win the affection of fans all over the world.
Niki & The Dove
It was a double hitter on Thursday night at Horatios. After Friends got down and dirty, Niki & The Dove had a similar effect of seducing their audience into submission. Sounding like the melodramatic younger sister to The Knife – mixed with a bit of Kate Bush – their gothic-power pop theatrics stopped the audience in their increasingly sozzled tracks. Despite not having any dancers on stage, as seen on YoutTube, the tunes on offer got the crowd moving. While the pier maintenance team weren’t needed, they caused a big enough of a storm to focus the festival hype machine upon them. You only needed to see the size of the queue outside to work that one out.
After what was rumoured to be a deflating headline performance by Maximo Park playing to approximately 20 people at The Dome (no one can confirm this number, unsurprisingly…), the festival turned to the Mystery Jets to provide the big anthems for Thursday night. Songs from their previous albums were greeted with unbridled jubilation at the Corn Exchange whilst new songs generally fell on deaf ears. A huge crowd sing-along to the modern classic ‘Two Doors Down’ made for a triumphant atmosphere for Blaine and the boys – if only the organisers had had the good sense to make them the actual headliners!
A hideously hungover looking Brighton swelled in the streets for the second day of activities. At Audio Upstairs there was a coup being staged by the Icelandic contingent. Of the Nordic talent on display, party-hard electro four-piece Sykur were undeniably infectious in their enthusiasm and charisma. Whilst I propped myself against the bar desperately trying to avoid vomiting on the beautiful blonde Scandanavians in the room, Sykur’s singer Agnes looked so happy to be there. Beaming smiles, wild dancing, joyous screaming and some 90s rave style anthems circa Black Box ‘Ride On Time’ were the perfect pick me up. Some rather camp rapping from the keyboardist added an extra Eurotrash element, which is no bad thing. Agnes later invited the whole club to a party at her house in Iceland. Judging by that performance, it would probably be the best party you’ve ever been too.
Gross Magic represented the best of the Brighton-based talent on show. Having supported Mystery Jets the previous night, it was a drastic change in setting for the lo-fi grunge outfit in the basement of the Queen Hotel. There is nothing about Gross Magic that could ever really be regarded as progressive or new but their songs are so catchy that its hard to ignore them. Singer Sam McGarrigle embodies the image of American mid-90s disengaged youth with a Daniel Johnston-esque childlike voice. Yes he’s not American, and yes he’s probably from a nice middle class family, but I can’t think of any ‘guitar band’ out there that can write as good a song as he can.
If Gross Magic aren’t the best guitar band this side of Dave Grohl‘s left butt-cheek, then maybe Foe could be in the running. Packed into nightclub on the seafront called Life, which normally hosts club nights with classy names such as ‘Jail Bait’ and ‘Sex tape’, a sophisticated looking Foe graced the stage, dressed all in black and declared very bluntly “I smell”. Even if she did smell bad, all was forgiven for giving a blisteringly gritty set – post-grunge sludge with a dark sugary glaze of pop, eerie organ trills rattling against echoed samples and scuzzy guitars – much like a melting point between The Kills, The Breeders and Portishead. Frankly, she’s cool as fuck and ‘Tyrant Song’ and ‘A Handsome Stranger Called Death’ will be mainstays of my summer playlist.
Possibly my biggest musical regret ever is turning down an opportunity to watch Grimes at a tiny venue in London last January. I learnt a harsh lesson that day: never let laziness stop you seeing a band. So this time I got down to Digital half an hour before the first band had even played a note to secure my spot, which was a wise decision given the queue that had already formed. Coming on stage painted like a ghoulish figure from A Nightmare Before Christmas, Grimes launched into ‘Oblivion’. Her eccentric, artisan wizardry and obvious enjoyment for playing live was mesmerising to witness and each song was received with rapturous applause. Flanked by two ghostly looking backing dancers (who were a bit shit – not that it mattered), she throws and contorts herself around as much as possible whilst staying behind a table to man the electronics. It would be interesting to see a show in which she wasn’t stuck behind the decks, but even if it was a bit static, Grimes was easily the most captivating artist of the weekend.
One of the best things about Great Escape is turning up to see an artist you’ve never heard before. What’s better is when the act in question is Enjoyed and he turns out to be the best kept secret in dance music. Even better still is that he uses a theremin, which if you didn’t know is a motion-censer controlled electronic instrument which makes you look like you’re squashing an invisible duck. Having resisted the urge to jump on stage and use my face on the censer to jam along, I settled for dancing in and out of smoke plumes to Peter Evans-Pritchard‘s colourful mix of RnB, electronica, hip-hop, pop and ambience, or as he likes to call it ‘joystep’. Enjoyed played a bliss-out and hypnotic set and should be recognized for his contribution to the drunks who wanted to dance on a Friday night. Joystep indeed!
If I thought Friday’s hangover was bad, Saturday made me want to rip out my insides and feed them to the seagulls. In dire need of some relaxing vibes and urge to repent for my weekend of sin, I headed to St Mary’s Church to catch Perfume Genius. After a beautiful set from Lonely, Dear (who only narrowly missed this top 10), Mike Hadreas, backed by another pianist and a drummer/guitarist, gently plucked and arpeggio’d their way through what is essentially Hadreas’ personal history of emotional turmoil. It felt appropriate for the music, which is very cathartic in nature, to be played in a venue where people come for peace and solace. I had goosebumps all over as Hadreas unfurled to release his inner demons. Bold, fragile and beautiful all at the same time. A spellbinding way to end an evening…
…but alas, the party was not over. After a few more beers and a boisterous set from African Express Sound System, it was then time for EMA at the Pavilion Theatre. To say I was impressed would be understatement. EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson) is a real life walkin’ talkin’ rock star. At a festival where there was quite a deliberate push to give exposure back to traditional bands, it was EMA’s unconventional and ambitious style which came out on top. She oozes a fearless renegade defiance which you simply can’t buy and her music refuses to obey restrictions on how a rock song should sound. After the critical acclaim of ‘Past Life Martyred Saint’, EMA is one of the most exciting and interesting artists around and her live show is where she really comes alive. Miss her at your peril or, at the very least, severe regret like my fateful Grimes experience…