A wry view on the south coast extravaganza...
The Great Escape

Brighton was never a rock ‘n’ roll town.

I mean, temperamentally it always has been, ever since the Prince Regent got chased out of Bath for ill behaviour and built himself that obscenely fabulous faux-Asian pavilion as a flashy, trashy bolthole by the sea. But it isn’t only dirty weekenders living life to excess.

Here sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll means messed-up junkie gigolos on the dole as much as loved-up dreamers making sweet music on the beach, although, yeah, that too. Those stones really don’t do your knees any good.

For those of us who’ve lived in this sexy, seedy city for any length of time, the Great Escape can sometimes be more of a Traumatic Return, waves of long-supressed episodes suddenly rushing back as you wander into some weirdly-renamed old haunt where your sorry life once plummeted to previously unimaginable new depths. ‘Hang on, didn’t this used to be... Oh god.’

For casual trippers Brighton is a rainbow-coloured cultural Disneyland of course, and those TGE-goers from far overseas could be forgiven for thinking that it’s Britain’s rock capital. Pffft! Guitars were widely regarded as The Devil’s Instrument when I lived here, from the mid ‘90s to the mid naughties, and indie gigs were about as rare as panda shags. Bar two Concordes and the now defunct Free Butt, there was bugger-all. We impressionable indie kids were quickly brainwashed into dance music via the gateway drug of jazzy beats.

So it’s a weird one, this weekend in May, seeing such a mixed-bag of bands crammed into every basement, arch and end-of-the-pier karaoke bar. A weird gig for the bands too, as many half-full venues here will feature the infamous Showcase Death Zone, that curious no-go area between the into-it punters up front and barely-moving industry types further back, ghostly figures glimpsed only fleetingly in the shadows when the light of a bored text-message bounces off their lanyards.

That spectral presence must weigh particularly heavy when things go spectacularly tits up. The promising electro-pop duo Avec Sans, for example, perform a perfectly good set on the pier, but then are forced to go unexpectedly a cappella when the power cuts, reminiscent of the old Newman/Baddiel sketches (YouTube linked here, if we’re lucky) where Utah Saints and The Orb turn up for MTV Unplugged.

Awkward, and just to rub it in, they’re then followed by the best stage management of the weekend, as sleeveless troubadour Lowly’s band do the old theatre trick of each musician emerging individually from the audience. They sound tight together, too.

At the Black Lion pub, meanwhile, a few familiar faces are refreshingly unfussed by the colour of anyone’s bloody wristbands. One of the great rock-pop voices, Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze is milling about because two of his sons make up half the band Millions, who are (a) as spikily, entertainingly melodic as you might expect, and (b) Australian, somehow. Probably a tax thing.

They’re followed by sixties psych legends The Zombies, playing acoustically and sounding curiously like an out-of-place cocktail jazz act, until the oft-sampled organ riff from ‘Time of the Season’ kicks in. “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?” sings a grinning Colin Blunstone, as if putting every upstart band at the festival in their place.

“How do you pronounce your name” might be more appropriate for Vök, from Iceland, playing in the window of a fusty old seafront hotel as part of the Alternative Escape programme, which bumps the number of new bands up to truly bewilderingly levels. Anyway, it’s ‘vurk’, we think. Unperturbed by the unpromising surroundings they launch into epic emotional anthems backed by electronic beats, and even a saxophone can’t sully the impact. Vöking excellent.

Also shoehorned into an unlikely venue are a diverting west country surf-soul outfit, Astronomyy, who rock a bizarre seafront bar called Shooshh (“Britain’s only VIP superclub”) which I undoubtedly wouldn’t be allowed into usually. Still, they clearly have something in common. Why the extra ‘h’ and ‘y’? Web optimisation? Existing VIP clubs/surf-soul bands called Shoosh and Astronomy?

Earlier on Thursday evening, the enjoyably enterprising singer-songwriter-with-samples-and-a-four-piece-band Nicholson wins our award for the least ambitious bandname but most ambitious trip, having travelled all the way from Mumbai. Second place goes to Thomston, a blonde Kiwi R&B cat with Lorde links. Sexy-rhyming but sweet-looking, he’s more R Whites than R Kelly, if a perfect fit for Saturday morning telly. Could be massive.

Thursday then turns bitter for yours truly. Darkness descends, initially just because I leave it too late to see Thurston Moore’s Band and never do get to the Concorde 2, which is a shame, it being an old haunt (we once arrived there in time to catch a support set from a band called Coldplay, and you wonder how the headliners, Terris, look back on that tour. Bet no one fucking believes them).

Instead I aimlessly wander the nearer venues, glumly pondering how on earth people keep up with all these names. Is Clarence Clarity particularly lucid? How loopy is Jeremy Loops? Does Louis Mattrs matter? Actually I rather like the latter, a Brighton-based vocalist who - despite some work with Chase & Status - is holed up in the Komedia’s smaller studio, valiantly battling the late-night chatter. And, to a certain extent, succeeding.

It can be a life-affirming, mood-altering find, late in a showcase festival evening. A local talent you’d never heard of, fully focussed on delivering for those folks who are listening, and never mind the bollocks elsewhere. That’s why Louis – and The Great Escape – matters.

Words: Si Hawkins

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