by Christopher Spring
So this was my first ever Great Escape weekend and had an awesome time. I've collated all of my reviews into one post rather than into lots of individual posts for ease. I should point out I saw quite a few other bands but these were the ones I picked out to review because there was something in what they did that I loved and cared about.
At the bottom I have also put my general thoughts about the whole festival.
I want to hear from you, what did you think of this year's festival? Who were your favourites? Do you disagree? Please let me know in the comments below!
You can listen to my Great Escape Preview show here too:
Michael Baker at The Alternative Escape at Café Plenty
This is a musician I’ve been aware of for a while, and have to say I’m perhaps too much of a fan to give a proper review. His debut album “Dust & Bone”, however, is amongst one of my absolute favourites of 2016. In fact, it has pride of place in my car, and have had to rebuy it once due to scratching from my CD player. I’m a huge fan of this Brighton based singer-songwriter and his set with Common Tongues was, save for a blown fuse, completely without fault. In fact his skills as an electrician is the only thing I can truly criticise.
The whole weekend seemed to have a real buzz around Café Plenty and Nicholas Williams and Michael Baker must take full credit for creating a truly fantastic venue for the weekend, showcasing Brighton-only artists. Here’s hoping there’s more to come.
Slaves on The Pier
The less said about this the better. Damp, dangerous, heavy-handed security and eventually an atrocious ending made the whole experience feel like a waste of time. If you are an event organiser, please remember to make sure your venue can actually take the weight of the audience; irresponsible planning can cost lives. Slaves themselves tried their best, but by the time they came on the damage had been done. A real pity for what should have been a real highlight of the festival.
Zeal & Ardor
After the disappointment of the pier I was going to go home after a pretty unsuccessful day of not being able to catch the bands I wanted too. A quick look at the app and realised I could see Zeal & Ardor, a fantastic band lead by Manuel Gagneux, who has combined Black Metal with Slave Music. This unique combination makes for some truly exceptional live performances, with a live 6-piece band, the metal riffs and guttural voice and power of the lyrics truly got the audience jumping.
After the huge disappointment of the Pier this truly managed to make me smile and dance, something I did not think was going to happen.
The Masks [London]
A band whose Soundcloud absolutely piqued my interest. Ambient producers with clear influence in R and B as well Lavere Holder and Robert Altman are producers who call on a wide talent pool of different singers and collaborators. For the purposes of this concert they called on the services of Cameron Bloomfiled and Miranda Jo with Holder and Altman assisting on the sound desk, and in charge of the backing music on a laptop and playing keys live.
Now, I'm not usually one for this kind of thing, but Cameron Bloomfiled did a very tight set showcasing himself ably including an ambient cover of Prince's “Wanna be your lover”. After a quick turn around Miranda Jo came on and sung her new single “Fallen”, recently featured on the Super Bowl Highlights reel as well as “Say Goodbye” the track that attracted me to them in the first place.
Whilst generally good, there were lots of oversight and little mistakes that became hugely distracting. With so much equipment onstage the Holder/Altman (don't know which, unfortunately) struggled throughout the set, playing the backing tracks, balancing levels and playing keys. It had the unfortunate effect of everything being slightly off beat and jarring throughout Miranda Jo's section. It also begged the question why bother with the laptop/keys if doing both is going to get in the way?
Some great music, and not doubting their abilities as producers, but sadly their live presence needs working on. Though, judging by their online presence this isn't their main focus yet anyway.
Megan Lara Mae
So this was a complete accident and actually is one of the best memories of The Great Escape, and to me, is what the escape should be about. It was absolutely tipping it down with rain on the street just outside the main Jubilee Square stage where I was on my way to watch Rosie Caldin. In one of the tiny Fender stages there was a young female singer-songwriter whose serene and clean voice stopped me in my tracks.
Despite the monsoon-like weather, horrendously loud music coming from the Burger Van just next door - I mean, really? Two live music venues within 20 yards of you and you're blaring out Stevie Wonder full volume? Sort it out. - and the fact that nobody was seemingly stopping to listen Megan Lara Mae carried on regardless. This 17 year old singer songwriter from Solihull in the West Midlands, now based in Brighton, whose influences can be found among Christian Rock as well as Rae Morris, Oh Wonder and Aurora; showed the true meaning of “show must go on.”
It was a voice and music who absolutely suited the moment, and after the burger van had (finally) been told to turn theirs down, we were treated to serene renditions of some of her latest singles. The audience outside Small Batch and Tesco gave her a supportive round of applause, and a passing camera crew asked her to play one more for them in spite of the next band waiting. Determined and talented, Megan Lara Mae will go far.
Me + Marie
The first really great gig of The Great Escape that this writer witnessed, and one of the best not just at the Escape, but ever. Me + Marie are a Berlin-based duo of Maria de Val (drums and vocals) and Roland Scandella (guitar and vocals), whose live sets are incredibly well supported by multi-instrumentalist Erie Thomson. Apart from being incredibly talented singers and musicians, their live sets has a real early-Pink Floyd/Led Zepplin quality, with flowing prog rock sounds over catchy hooks and lyrics with stunning vocals that remind me of “Daughter”.
Every song had a real story quality to it, allowing the audience to truly engage in the lyrics and sound, losing ourselves in the music. Maybe it was because of this engagement, but when looking at the musicians you could see them smiling at each other and singing just as much to each other than just with each other. In fact, during the instrumental solos or breakdowns in the songs both just seemed to let loose completely, grinning and dancing as they played, this warmed the audience even more and got us dancing and smiling along.
The album doesn’t quite seem to have that prog-rock magic which the show had, with a slightly more conventional catchy indie feel. This is not to say it’s not still good, but these are a band who come alive live.
This was a gig I was particularly looking forward too from when I saw her music video for “Tourist”, a hyper-surreal avant garde creation which continued into her live set. With little to no budget to recreate the visuals of the video, instead we were treated to a surrealist delight with Balcus performing on her own with her backing tracks, changing and added too by Balcus’ live flute and voice looped and distorted to create an extra layer before her singing gliding over the top.
Ok, so it’s a singer who uses a loop pedal, music and her voice to create her sound? Fine. Nothing weird about that. What was weird though was using wired up fruit and veg as a musician would a keyboard to add in sounds. It was a gimmick that worked extraordinarily well as it set the tone of humour that she used to her advantage throughout.
A performance closer to performance art rather than conventional music, I couldn’t work out if I adored it or not. As there was so much going on I couldn’t quite get into the music itself as I was fascinated to see what was coming next. Definitely a “marmite” act (i.e. you’ll either love it or hate it), but either way she is not likely to care too much.
“I’m not taking this life too seriously,” was one of her repeated lyrics. We can tell. She challenged the audience to react, to feel, to engage. I just don’t know if it was to react to the music or not.
Sampa The Great
What a woman. A woman whose voice evokes clear parrellels with Lauryn Hill, but whose lyrics and sentiment is always about strength, empowerment and inspiration. Her flow unparalleled this year amongst the rap artists I’ve seen, and with a real understanding of poetry and spoken word, this is someone who took the audience where she wanted us to go.
If she wanted us to shout along, we did; Dance? No problem. Go silent: You could hear a pin drop. Her set is unequivocally powerful and the fact that she’s already supporting Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and Ibeyi is of no surprise. Surely on track to become one of the voices of her generation her powerful message at the end says it all:
“I am called Sampa The Great, not because I am already great, but because that’s what I aspire to be. And you can too. We can all be great.”
This is a role model as well as a musician someone with this much talent should not be this humble. But let’s hope it continues.
I was going to leave this to Alice but I also wanted to write a quick line on them too: This band is absolutely phenomenal. Real punk/grime mix jam packed full of attitude and talent. An almost “Fuck you” to the established idea that punk can’t have musical talent. With some incredible (and deceptively difficult) riffs, great lyrics and a real message underlying message of “jump and dance with me, but be careful I bite.” Nova Twins are a band to keep your eye on.
The last official band I saw from The Great Escape and one that I was absolutely relieved to have stumbled across having never heard of them before. This Doncaster-based punk three piece declared themselves immediately as highly political through the simple messaged emblazoned on the young singers chest: “FUCKIN’ VOTE LABOUR”.
Without a word they were straight into the set with loud distortion setting the tone that we were going to be dancing. Opening with “Swine”, and with lyrics like “There is no hope, there is no hope, there is no hope” it is a clear message of a disenfranchised band who want to inspire as old punk bands did. Imagine the sound of The Libertines, with a little bit of old school punk in there.
This is a band that want to make a statement, hopefully they’ll be able too.
A Quick Note on The Great Escape as a whole:
First of all, what a festival. It simply blew my mind that we could have this much talent in one city, so much variety and so much to see. However, there seemed to be quite a few oversights and missed details that, as time went on, bothered me.
Now, I understand the thinking behind this, in theory you pay £250-£300 (can't remember unfortunately) and you get exclusive queue jumping abilities, extra panels to go and see, as well as being able to mingle in the industry. I get this, but in reality there just seemed to be too many around.
Most people in the industry had them, and as time went on it became a real problem as some (not all, must be said!) had a real sense that they were superior to wrist bands. This rather put off some festival goers, and as time went on began to grate me too.
It also peeved others that often they wouldn't be paying for the tickets as they would simply have been given it by the company they work for. In my opinion it should be a guest list option for industry folk. Ok? So you HAVE to go and see x bands? Fine, you're on the guest list. You WANT to see them? Fine, you have a limit of, say, 5 bands. But being able to queue jump everywhere for bands you're not that bothered about it a real kick in the face for people who have paid £60 to go to the festival. Are we not valued too? We're the ones likely to buy the music you're playing/marketing/showcasing - we're the fans, and the fans are the fans who make the shows what they are.
It worked so well this year, so many venues and bands to go and see! However, sometimes there were a few bands who had been pushed or would be popular among people who like similar genres on at the same time across the city. Maybe a way of splitting up genres and times may help? Small thing. The logistical challenge would be a nightmare, but would be interesting.
Meeting the fans:
For me, this is something I would love to see. A stand or bar where people can go and meet their favourite artists, chat and have a beer/selfie? Personal thing, as I know people can go and chat to them afterwards, but often are rushing off, and actually maybe a "Meet The Artists" event may be pretty darn cool.
Finally, the pier party:
The statement from Slaves says it all, and says instantly how much they learnt. I will let them say it.
To the organisers of The Great Escape, thank you so much. Your hard work and dedication have made this a yearly highlight for so many people in Brighton and across the world. Here's hoping that next year is even bigger and better.
Here's to next year! (Early Bird Tickets below:)