The USA has had all the fun for too long. The music-industry-convention-festival that is Austin’s South By Southwest has attracted just about everybody from north America and a fair few bods from elsewhere on the planet for some years. Until now there’s been no attempt at a British equivalent. This wet weekend in May was to change all that.
Comprising more than 150 bands in something like 15 venues over three days, the Great Escape slotted neatly in to the established Brighton Festival as a place where the music industry and the people who pay their wages were able to get up close and personal. A three day punter pass was a snip at just 35, while industry “delegates” paid rather more for their flouncey diva passes. Bands were restricted to playing 30 minute sets only – the pace was frenetic even from the scheduling.
Taxi drivers were to do a roaring trade. One of the event’s characteristics was the distances between venues. Either taxi rides or hefty hoofstomps were necessary – the Hanbury Ballroom, for instance, is all the way out in Kemp Town, effectively a suburb of Brighton. This and the fact that up to 17 bands would be playing at the same time necessitated some effort at planning for punters and delegates alike.
Our first stop of the night was north up the Grand Parade to Pressure Point, a pub of London Barfly proportions with a music venue in the loft at which You Say Party, We Say Die! (***) were opening. The Vancouver band were one of several Canadian acts to appear at the festival – earlier, the Canadian High Commission had turned up with Canadian beers, CDs and friendly things to say too – and the six-piece new wave punksters were amongst the most energetic of their countrymen, fronted by a riot gurrrl called Becky.
Not from Canada at all despite their suggestive name, Seal Cub Clubbing Club (***) – actually from the Wirral – were next up after a shamble down to the beach front Zap Club, a place of ramps and brahma that was to be never less than packed all weekend. A geeky looking bunch, their charismatic front man offered solid, note perfect vocals and was rewarded with whoops and smiles from the assembled throngs.
Via Komedia for the last song of the Ralfe Band‘s multi-instrumentalist set to Pressure Point again, where wall-to-wall trendies snuggled up in anticipation of Transgressive act Rumble Strips (***). Derived as a splinter formation from buzz band Vincent Vincent and the Villains, the Rumbles are fronted by a Martin Fowler lookalike and sport a beehived bass player whose party trick involves getting out a sax. Their brass parpery doesn’t end there – they have a trumpet too. Despite a soupy sound mix, their flex of ska rock was a sure sign that anything sounding a wee bit like Madness or The Specials is in vogue in 2006.
One of those epic walks was next, for Martha Wainwright (****), another Canadian in town, was setting up shop at the aforementioned Hanbury. Considerable stage space was occupied charismatically by Martha, her guitar and a tequila or two. Behind her span an annoyingly projected MOJO logo (programmers of the venue this evening) on a screen. As we tried to ignore it – and cheered when she asked if it was annoying – Martha did her level best to give her audience more to look at than could be expected of a solo singer with an acoustic guitar. Requests for tequila refills and lengthy pauses for guitar tuning, witty one liners to Spike the sound man and audience banter punctuated a set comprised of her eponymous debut album’s songs. Her big, distinctive voice reminded of Kristin Hersh. As seemed inevitable, her best known (notorious?) song Bloody Motherfucking Asshole closed a set that had been as mesmerising as it was brief.
Thus ended the evening for the punters, but another of the Great Escape’s characteristics was about to be evidenced – the aftershow party. Several venues each night had them, and only delegates – in theory – were allowed in. At the Hanbury the unbilled Josh Ritter (****) sidled up onto the stage and let his brand of woozy acoustica float over the attentive audience. With a permagrin and bubblebath hair and between-songs banter about cows in t-shirts as adverts for loved ones, those of us who’d not seen Ritter live before left with every intention of checking out his album.
Not being ready for bed just yet, and not finding their Ocean Rooms set earlier in the evening possible to attend due to clashes, it was a taxi ride back to the Pav Tav where Holy Fuck (****) – yip, more Canadians – were setting up tables full of electronic gizmos for what would be the perfect high-voltage end to day one. Their unique way of doing electronic music is to make it on the spot, without laptops or backing tracks. The four-piece’s Sly & Robbie-like, bass-led dub was chock full of beats to shimmy about to and full of invention. FX pedals, melodicas, kiddie keyboards and whatever else came to hand featured in the mix, and although they were stuffed into a corner of a pub, the rest of the pub wanted to be in that corner.
Grinning like Jack Nicholson in Batman, it was back to berth for a few hours before it would all start again on Day Two…