Reflections on The Great Escape 2015

With 400 artists playing in over 35 venues across three days, the one thing you can be sure of is everyone’s The Great Escape is going to be different. This was my fifth in a row and only illness meant this year mine started a day late.

To be honest, missing Thursday didn’t seem like a huge loss. Following the proceedings courtesy of my twitter feed, it just appeared a bit of a wash out. Miserable weather and TGE are not ideal bedfellows, so much of the festival atmosphere happens out on the streets and at Jubilee Square – back being used again after last year’s attempt to relocate the event hub to the middle of the Old Steine.

There were two bands I wanted to see on Thursday – High Tyde were playing Patterns, the former Audio club which reopened following a major refurb. The other was Kate Boy, a Swedish electronic trio who I was also due to interview. The good news was High Tyde were playing the same venue the following day, the bad news was I couldn’t speak to Kate Boy and had to be content with sending them my questions via their PR. And of course I also got to miss seeing them live.

So for me, things really only started happening on Friday. Fortunately, the weather changed and the sun was shining, Brighton was buzzing, yellow lanyards with oversized photo ID’s were everywhere and lots of young people sported yellow T-shirts. They were the army of TGE volunteers, mostly uni students and doing everything from manning registration to staffing the venues. I think this was the first time that the T-shirts were yellow, which was curious because the events branding is mainly light blue.

The shirts were yellow, because that was the colour of this year’s major sponsor Dr Martens and so prominently was their named plastered over the event that many walking around Brighton would probably have assumed there was some sort of Dr Martens festival taking place.

Now there’s an unwritten rule in marketing which says the event name should always be more prominent than its sponsor. Who knows whether next year’s TGE will end up being named The Dr Martens Great Escape! I hope it doesn’t, but I think it’s inevitable that sooner or later a title sponsor will be found.

Friday lunch-time found me in a church, not one of Brighton’s architectural gems, but the rather utilitarian Brighthelm on North Road. I was there to see Cécile Cassel, a Parisian actress who goes under the stage name HollySiz. It was a great start to my TGE as Cécile and her band put on a high energy show that was surprisingly entertaining given that France is hardly renowned for its contribution to contemporary music. That said, half past twelve in the afternoon is not the best time to be asked to play a gig or for that matter to be in the mood to watch one. It’s an unnecessarily early start-time that does neither bands or punters any favours.

On the subject of time, it’s worth mentioning that as a rule all bands playing TGE are confined to half-hour slots – or put another way around six to eight songs. Soundchecks happen between acts and, as result, it’s easy to get to see a lot of bands in one day. That said, if you can, it’s best to stay in the same venue as most are small and fill up fast. Indeed, it seemed to me that all the venues I was at were rammed and there were queues outside a lot of the places I passed.

From Brighthelm it was just a short walk to Komedia where Brighton band Of Empires were playing. I say Brighton band, but they actually hail from Guernsey. BIMM brought them here and now it’s where they call home. I first saw them at C2 supporting Adam Ant and was impressed. They have a swagger about them and in Jack Fletcher, they’ve got an engaging front-man. Having now seen them twice, I think they’ve got a better than average chance of making it.

One band who already has is Everything Everything, and whilst they weren’t performing at The Great Escape, they were speaking about their experiences in a BIMM-organised band chat. Having heard them do the same thing a couple of TGE’s ago,I knew they’d be interesting to listen to and despite having to substitute their manager for their singer, they were again this year.

However, not for the first time at this year’s event, it highlighted a deja vu all over again feeling as the festival featured a glut of familiar faces. Now the organisers may have wanted us to believe they were returning to celebrate the event’s 10th birthday, but to me it just felt lazy and not in keeping of the event’s ethos in showcasing new artists. Alabama Shakes were one of the headliners at the Dome, Django Django were back again, as were Slaves. All too often, if felt less like a new music festival and more like the same old, same old.

Indeed the ageist feeling persisted with this year’s four secret gigs – all of which, disappointingly had been announced in advance. Whilst Drenge are relatively new, the Maccabees, the Vaccines and Paul Weller are certainly not. A cynic would say all of them had new albums to promote. When you add the like’s of Blur’s Dave Rowntree and ‘legendary’ DJ Annie Nightingale rounding off the business sessions, it just reinforced how much grey was in this year’s Great Escape.

Fortunately, there were some younger artists on the bill and Friday afternoon saw me seeing one of them at Patterns, the venue formerly known as Audio. The young guns were High Tyde and they’re from Brighton. I’d seen and chatted with them before, and rate then highly, but the venue wasn’t the right place for them to play. They need a proper stage and decent lighting, rather than playing in daylight in what looks more like a wine bar than a rock venue. Indeed, much of Patterns still resembled a building site.

Whilst Alabama Shakes were headlining the Dome, having seen them twice before I headed down to Coalition for what promised to be one of the festival’s must-see evenings. I was there for Nothing But Thieves, a young band from Essex who many – including me – think are destined for great things. With such a small stage, if I was going to get any good shots I needed to claim a spot at the front. Often that means having to endure mediocre music, but not tonight. Indeed Aurora, a diminutive singer from Norway, was excellent. In fact, she and her band were a revelation and she had the crowd in the palm of her tiny hands. In a lot of ways, she reminded me of Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men and based on this performance, she could well repeat their success.

Next up were Nothing But Thieves, who a week earlier had wowed Fearne Cotton with a stunning Live Lounge performance. And they fully lived up to expectations. One of the best new bands I’ve seen in a long time, I’m convinced they’re going to be huge. In Conor Mason, they’ve got a truly exceptional vocalist and even though they’ve yet to release an album, they’ve already put out a handful of superb songs. And they’re even better live! If Hozier proved to be the breakout artist of last years’s Great Escape, I predict, Nothing But Thieves will be this year’s. Hopefully, they’ll be back in Brighton soon – someone please book ‘em!

My last act of the night was Slaves. Having seen them twice before, I knew they were good to shoot although I was somewhat surprised they were on the bill because they too played last year. With their energy and almost constant touring, I guess it was inevitable that they would blow up and it looks like they now have. This was the first of two shows at TGE and there was no doubt they’ve improved a lot over the last twelve months. Having their name in huge letters behind them also showed they’ve moved up a notch or two.

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Saturday afternoon saw Lawson playing an intimate gig ahead of the release of their sophomore album. No surprise then that Komedia was filled with young girls. Lawson of course have strong Brighton connections, with local boy Adam Pitts on the drums. Playing a venue where the audience are standing mere inches in front of you, must have felt a little weird for the band, especially as the night before they were in Birmingham supporting Take That. Indeed, that very evening they were back up the M1 to play a second night with them. The broad grins they wore throughout was evidence that they were really enjoying themselves and there was no question that they put on a crowd-pleasing set which included new single ‘Roads’. The only downside – and one that affects the majority of TGE venues – was the less than wonderful lighting. Indeed at times they were almost playing in the dark.

That afternoon I was hoping to interview hot American duo Lion Babe. All had been arranged, but come the day, things started sounding less certain and ultimately it never happened. With the chat not materialising, I turned my attention to Canadian rockers, Arkells who were playing Patterns. However, their show got moved from downstairs to upstairs and pushed back. As a result, it created a clash in my itinerary, so I hot-footed it to the Haunt for an artist I definitely didn’t want to miss.

One of the name’s on a lot of people’s lips was Shamir, an androgynous 20-year old from Las Vegas. As soon as I got to the venue I bumped into him and we had an interesting chat. Before he took the stage I got to see Yak, a band I’d not heard of before, but one I’m really pleased I happened upon. The trio from Wolverhampton were really good and they’re another band to look out for.

But the highlight of the evening + and along with Nothing But Thieves, the highlight of this year’s festival – was Shamir. Despite being dressed down in a knitted sweater and jeans, there was a definite star quality about him and his performance, a performance propelled by a great drummer and the Haunt’s excellent sound system. He began with his hair up, before giving it a flick of the hand and his dreadlocks came tumbling down. His thirty minutes went by all too quickly and ended with him jumping into the audience and vanishing. But believe me, we’ll be seeing much more of him in the future.

So that was my Great Escape. Over two days I got to see pretty much all the bands I wanted to and I have to say, all those I saw were well worth seeing. But, and it is a pretty big but, the over-riding feeling I was left with was this was an event that is in urgent need of fresh thinking. It needs to attract a much younger audience, its business sessions need to far better reflect the changed face of the music industry and its line-up needs better curation, with less reliance on a handful of not-so-secret gigs by established names.

And the reason all that is needed is simple. A few years ago The Great Escape was alone in showcasing new acts, now there are many similar festivals up and down the country that precede and follow it. TGE may still be the biggest, but it’s no longer the unique, must-attend experience it once was.

The Great Escape returns to Brighton on Thu 19 – Sat 21 May 2016


Photos by Images Out Of The Ordinary

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