You need luck at The Great Escape, Blighty’s answer to SXSW that, this year, celebrates its fifth anniversary on the eclectic shores of Brighton. To find the next big thing in a Sussex basement takes a dose of serendipity. To be the next big thing, discovered by a salivating A&R rat in a beachside bordello, needs a fist-sized enema of kismet.
But for the fortuitous few, The Great Escape is a beatific three-day stumble around over 30 packed-out venues, soaking up nearly 400 of the next generation in a blissful, sun-dappled stroll through the planet’s musical finery.
Of course, if you left your rabbit’s foot at home, there’s nothing for you but a damp weekend with nudey, vegan cyclists: hordes of which also descend on Brighton’s beaches for the World Naked Bike Ride. So some advice: if you’re luck-averse and want to avoid the saggy nudists peddling their body-painted muftis in the cause of eco-justice then stay home and read on. We’ve got the all the good bits right here…
Day One swings into life with Kid Bombardos, whose Strokes-ian indie brought some New York pep to the end of Brighton Pier. A neat if downbeat indie troupe, they fought valiantly with the fairground outside, raging techno creeping in to form an unfortunate Julian-Casablancas/808 State mashup. Bizarre.
No less bewildering is the first of The Great Escape’s info-texts. “Violent Soho at the Doughnut!” it suggests, unnervingly. But spying a vaguely ring-shaped statuette across the beach, we take our chances and stumble sea-ward to find the first of the omnipresent sponsor Relentless’ street-gigs in full flow. Violent Soho turn out to be a hairy Australian contingent trying to kick-start a 1995-esque metal revival. Afraid not, boys.
Across town, and preferring classical soul to slack-jawed hair rock, Marquis Toliver is treating an enraptured few to street gig number two. Lightly struck strings and soaring, emotive vocals grant New York’s Toliver a dignity rarely sought midst the brattishness of post punk. A sometime session man for Bat For Lashes and Grizzly Bear, the East-coast journeyman is an act of heartfelt crescendo, bittersweet lyrics and lone violin, segued together to grant a grandness of emotion to our own soft humanity. Superb.
Of a less sublime cut, Hungry Kids Of Hungary take the baton for the early evening crowd at Jam: Morning-Runner-esque indie whose half-cut hooks do little to lift the dirge. Surprisingly well received, though.
No such reception at perennial rock-slum Hector’s House, where Canadian alt-rockers Final Flash lay out their anthemic indie to sparse applause. The five-piece deliver big, rollicking guitar numbers with a bluesy tinge and Verve-esque vocal that’s never bereft of a riff or hook but ends up defiantly retrograde. It never quite catches the crowd who are more taken with the singer’s oblique accent (he is, he admits, a “French fuck”…).
For the lovers of tomorrow, then, some respite back at Audio where Cambridgeshire psych-popsters Fenech Soler launch onstage with a crystal-etched, indie-rave aplomb that’s instant proof of their ability to command both the Radio 1 Weekend Anthem and the love of a surging festival crowd. Theirs is a synth-soaked swerve borne of ’90s dancefloors, Noughties’ nu-rave and a choppy, mashed-up ethic that has the “Levi’s Ones to Watch” crowd literally begging for more.
So much so, in fact, that their gig runs way over and headliners These New Puritans are practically forced on-stage and soundchecking before FS are through. And after the glitzy sequin-pop beats of the King’s Cliffe boys, the syncopated gloom of Southend’s post-punk revivalists descends like an acrid shadow, twisting their malevolent beats like a leather-gloved hand on the neck of a frail, baying crowd. These New Puritans’ presence is a skronked-out menace: building layers of complementary discord, groaning synth, and drum-backed portent under a fearsome spoken-vocal. Best moment? Twin brothers Jack and George, mirrored at drums across the stage, stoking a beat of increasing rage as the basement crowd writhed, cult-like, beneath, like the club in Blade as blood spurts from the sprinklers above. Genius.
Over at a superheated Revenge, Vancouver’s Japandroids are noisy but pretty uninspiring, although the monstrous crush of people doesn’t help: when you’re spending whole songs craning your head in search of a second-floor window from which to leap, simply to remember what air feels like, everything else seems a little inconsequential.
These half-hour sets can be merciful, although perhaps not so much to the fans turning out for The Ruby Pink, with an overrunning soundcheck resulting in 45 minutes of collective sweating before the New Zealanders get a mere song to justify their carbon footprint. We’d riot if we weren’t at the point of collapse.
Way more satisfying is the brutal electro-rage of India’s Pentagram, essentially a globalised Pitchshifter, the grind of drum machines marauding beneath sociopathic vocals and caustic rhythms. Their closing mash-up of The Prodigy‘s Smack My Bitch Up arguably veers perilously close to being overdone, but there’s no denying the power and vitriol of the band’s own material, and of the potential of their vocalist to generate nightmares.
For some reason the audience for Blood Red Shoes seems taller than those for other gigs, although a fortuitous platform to the right of the stage allows the more vertically-frugal at least the hope of glimpsing the band. The downside, however, quickly becomes apparent, when our eardrums are rent asunder by the speaker stacks immediately next to our heads: this is not a band known for subtlety. Even with earplugs firmly nestled their set still echoes days later, riffs etched into the ear canal like record grooves, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: we’d happily sync all of our future actions to the guitar line of Heartsink.
That Blood Red Shoes’ 45 minute maelstrom is pretty much faultless should come as no surprise – indeed, the only shock is the visual confirmation that it is just two people producing this much sound, making other bands just seem wasteful. Highlights? Surviving, mostly, and being able to survey the band-sanctioned crowd-surfing from a safe vantage. Not being hit in the head by the cans of beer thrown by drummer/vocalist Steven Ansell into the crowd (sympathy, though, for the woman to our right who was). A raucous, draining but life-affirming Light It Up. And losing half our body weight in sweat.