The Great Escape has grown in size and reputation to the point where it’s almost become the very thing you want to escape from. Over the weekend, this music industry conference and festival turns the not-so-sleepy seaside town of Brighton into a non-stop party of happy musos all keen to catch the next big thing.
So the possibility of seeing better-known bands such as Django Django (who really might be the next big thing), was, well, not one. Instead, those wanting to avoid hour-long queues and the one-out-one-in policy at venue doors must experience the Great Escape as the Series of Mini Escapes. And that’s by no means a bad thing – the quality of artists that feature in this showcase of new musical talent means each little escape leads to delightful discovery.
Wading through the revellers partying in the streets into the quiet stillness of the Unitarian Church, for example, provided an introduction to Ben Salter, an Australian singer/songwriter who, despite not exactly turning the genre on its head, is captivating with his intensity and simplicity. Also playing true to category, but feeling slightly incongruous in the dark nightclub environment of the Haunt on a sunny afternoon, were New Zealand folk band Avalanche City. There’s something enormously appealing about this band’s earnest, understated approach, and there’s something about the sweet kiwi accent that suits folk songs down to the ground.
The Haunt also played host to Airick Woodhead’s Doldrums on Friday night – a fitting alternative to the more hyped action in the town centre with his anarchic, punk-goes-electronic music of enormously varied samples and monster percussion. Battered by waves of strange noise, unpredictable time changes and Woodhead’s androgynous and childlike voice, we were forced to relinquish any notion of how music should sound or songs should be structured. But it was exhilarating to give in, getting carried away by Woodhead’s sheer energy, and his fun-filled set ended with half the crowd up on stage dancing madly to his forthcoming single ‘Egypt’.
Entertaining in a whole other way was fellow Canadian Ben Caplan and his band the Casual Smokers. This was more folk, but folk from an enormous personality behind an equally enormous beard. Caplan’s look and sound puts one in mind of preacher in the American old West, interacting rather comically with the crowd in his booming, evangelical voice. “If we all yell together, we can turn this moment into a giant vagina,” he bellowed as the sun streamed into the lovely airy space of the Blind Tiger, “through which we can all pass and be reborn.” At least that’s what I think he said – the Blind Tiger serves very nice cider.
The final night called a spot for soothing electronica by Irish duo Solar Bears, who deliver their mellow-yet-upbeat arrangements almost as pleasantly perfect live as they do on their album ‘She Was Coloured In’. And in yet another random moment of discovery, popping in early for their set at the Pavilion Theatre meant catching a spot of infectious honky-tonk piano accompanied by Hendrix-inspired guitar from Americans Hans Chew.
Emerging from dark clubs, blinking, into the bright seaside light, one thing you can’t escape is the joyful fact you’re in Brighton – a place where it’s easy to fill a weekend even without the nation’s music industry descending upon it en masse. Crowd’s waiting to hear Chet Faker’s fantastic cover of ‘No Diggity’ could sit on the pebbly beach with a pint until he showed up. Momentary lapses in musical concentration could be filled in Kemptown with wine and tasty fish-finger sandwiches at new bar Neighbourhood, or in the North Laine partaking of produce from the Sussex countryside at Farm Café. While festival food is reaching wondrous levels of yummyness these days, it’s hard to beat the delights of a Brighton café in the sun. It’s also hard to beat a comfortable bed at the end of a long night of revelling, and local B&B the Griffin might have given us the best little escape of all. In a beautiful house in Kemptown as close to the action as you can get, owners Chris and Kieran are laid back and fun to talk to (about such things as seeing The Jam in Hammersmith for 50p back in the day, bless). And they serve the best breakfast this side of the Channel.
Enjoying life at the Great Escape is an exercise in letting go – ditching the mindset of the ‘must-see’ band and even scrapping some of your own musical preferences to embrace new music played by some of the best new artists around. With so many acts, so many venues and oh-so-many people, this festival forces an escape from your stuck-in-a-rut musical norms. And that’s what makes it great.