Spotting Brian Molko nonchalantly strolling past us within ten minutes of being in Brighton was a precursor for both the shrug-the-shoulders coolness of The Great Escape (TGE) and the easy accessibility to the musicians there. Mr Placebo was on his way to giving a talk, where he is said to have inspired listeners with various quotes including one from David Bowie: “Never lose your spontaneity and never stop reading books.”
Though the weather may have been grey and miserable on the first day, this did nothing to dampen the spirits of those in the vibrant seaside city, despite the ludicrously stretched queues that resulted from the strict one-in one-out policy enforced by the burly doormen, which in itself is a nod to just have far TGE has come in its short six-year existence. Those who have attended the festival before remarked on how there were no queues in previous years. But with a remarkable expansion that now sees 300 bands playing across 30 venues in three days, it’s inevitable that this was going to happen.
Willy Mason, playing in the Pavilion Theatre on the Thursday night, very nearly missed his own gig. Whilst in the queue we spotted the American heading out of the venue. On doing so a doorman reminded him that if he left he wasn’t allowed back in. “But I’m playing here,” came the singer’s cool reply in that distinctive drawl of an accent, which led to some at the front of the queue leaping to his defence in starry-eyed excitement. Free Willy anyone? Mason’s set was engaging, melodic and supported by a core group of fans in the crowd who acted as backing singers.
Next up were TOY, a band who emerged in 2010 and have come a long way since their first gig at the Cave Club in Islington. In fact, they’ve come a long way since the days of Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, which three of the band members were previously a part of. Drawing comparisons to The Horrors, the psychedelic post-rock five-piece were enthralling. Vocally, lead singer Tom Dougall was drowned out at times by the overpowering krautrock-style riffs. But the climatic finishes to their songs hypnotised the crowd, transforming everyone into a collection of head-nodding “toys”.
Django Django rounded off the evening at the venue with a very lively performance that got the packed crowd dancing. The much-hyped group, who met at art-school in Edinburgh and now reside in east London, have attracted a lot of attention in the media in recent months. And it’s no surprise. Live, they’re fun, energetic, confident and humorous – the latter two attributes noted by their ability to charm the expectant attendees whilst a technical fault was tended to.
The sun made a welcome appearance for the remainder of the festival, providing people with the opportunity to adorn their shades and shorts, which would no doubt have been packed with crossed fingers and a pinch of trepidation. Fiction’s lunchtime set was delayed by some 20 minutes after their van broke down on their way to Brighton, yet there was still a good turn out to see them at the Green Door Store. The quirky four-piece played their catchy singles ‘Parakeets’ and ‘Big Things’; the latter of which has gained them radio airtime and a soundtrack to a Ford Fiesta Zetec advert. This will surely “drive” them on to “big things” in 2012. (Sorry).
The Queen’s Hotel played host to an interesting up and coming band called Mammal Club. Under the same management as Dutch Uncles, they are most definitely worth seeking out. Listen to their track called ‘Otter’, which will provide an understanding of the intelligent use of instrumentals they’ve embedded into their music.
An almighty mass of bodies bulged Digital to capacity for Grimes; the one-in one-out queue practically created another pier along the seafront an hour before she even took to the stage. And it was unsurprising because Grimes, in a word, was incredible. The jabbing synths of ‘Oblivion’ coupled with her pixie-soft vocals was enchanting, while the ethereal sound of ‘Genesis’ was given visual quality with the simple yet effective geisha-like, ghostly face paint Grimes and her two dancers had worn for the set. The more buzz she generated among the dancing hordes of people the more she fed off it, providing a raw energy which in turn the crowd lapped up – a cycle which continued for the unbelievably quick, unfairly short 30 minutes she was on for. The (somewhat abrubt) end of her set was met with tumultuous applause and roars, a resounding way to mark the night.
Sore heads did nothing to dispel festival goers in attending the SOFAR sounds event early on Saturday, at a cosy venue situated above Marwood’s café on Ship Street. Eager fans had ventured forth to watch King Charles, Slow Club and We Were Evergreen play a few acoustic songs each – an intimate treat and a soothing way to start the final day.
Glaswegian outfit Admiral Fallow played a showcase for the Scottish Music Industry Association at The Warren – a large pop-up venue at the back of a car park. The band possesses a unique and genuine sound that’s a fusion of indie, folk and rock. Led by the charismatic frontman, Louis Abbott the Scots were a hit with songs ‘Tree Bursts’ and ‘Isn’t This World Enough??’, which united the fans in singing along to the chorus.
A standout highlight from the day was Californian buzz band HAIM at Audio. Much has been made of the three sisters’ live performances at this year’s SXSW, so expectations were high. And HAIM did not disappoint. Danielle, Alana and Este’s music is described as “80s dance beats…[that] quickly morphs into soulful pop-rock.” Their fusion of genres is so diverse that comparisons have been made from TLC and Fleetwood Mac, to Alanis Morissette and (whisper it) Jacko. They’re able to lasso fans in via the entrapment of their senses, casting them under a spell with their mesmerising music and keeping the attention there with the oft-sexual ferocity displayed on stage. Indeed, that brashness comes out in between songs with yells of, “If I don’t get pregnant in Brighton I’m gonna be pissed!” Humour or frustration? Who knows? But what is known is HAIM are ones to watch.
The Great Escape has been dubbed 'The Alternative Escape', and they duly delivered in that respect. Just don’t expect to be able to see all the acts you mark down in your itinerary should you decide to go in 2013 as there will be clashes. And there will most certainly be queues.
Words: James Massoud