With over 400 artists at 35 venues across its 3 days, Brighton’s The Great Escape is to new music lovers what Hamleys is to 8-year-olds. To say we’re giddy is an understatement and as we gawp at the app’s wondrously eclectic line up we’re a mite overwhelmed, frantically attempting to fit the must-see artists together into doable day plans as we get ready to zip around the city like an air hockey puck.
The blistering sun sets the tone for Thursday and we kick off at noon with a sunlit jaunt to The Prince Albert, where South African pop band Beatenberg make an infectious sound that is in keeping with the glorious weather. The Cape Town trio’s set is vivacious and vibrant, overspilling with Vampire Weekend vibes, and the grooving pop of ‘Rafael’ is its dazzling highpoint.
With the unshakeable refrain still ringing in our ears, Wagner Hall is our second port of call, where the open-air courtyard floor has been carpeted with bark and transformed into the Vevo Garden. In this little sun trap, Berkshire-born Frances woos with songs of spine-tingling simplicity and a voice that is flabbergastingly flawless. ‘Grow’ is her perfect piano balladry at its most potent; an Adele-like moment that could make even the coldest fish blub.
It’s worlds away from the cacophony of yelps and overdrive at Latest Music Bar, where the beer-soaked floor grips like gaffer tape. With a crowd packed in like sardines, Cardiff band Tibet play a rousingly raucous show of boozy yowls and crashing riffs, with ‘I’ll Put You In My Pocket’ the point they soar beyond all the Libs and Cribs comparisons into something totally their own.
Leeds trio Trudy and the Romance toe a similar line, bringing their doo-wop scruff pop to Horatios at the end of the pier. They shun the sad pub atmos with a buoyant ‘Behave’, its erratic jazz chords going hell for leather alongside the distinctive hoarse tone of singer Oliver Taylor. The frontman’s on-stage antics are what wins over the room, with uncontrollable moves that look as if he’s attempting to escape his own skin. It’s a magnetic performance.
Hertfordshire teen Declan McKenna immediately follows and is an equally mesmerising presence, spending most of his scintillating set perched on the barrier or in the audience, much to the alarm of scurrying sound men. The 17-year-old’s slew of indie pop nuggets are plagued by technical issues, but it matters very little with such an earworming arsenal at his disposal. New single ‘Bethlehem’ is the standout, building to an emphatic climax of Mystery Jets hooks and late Maccabees grandeur.
Sprits are high post-McKenna, despite dusk’s driving seaside rain and bluster, which has replaced the beaming rays of earlier in the day. In the heart of the North Laines, Leif Erikson‘s carefully nuanced rock at Komedia is just right for the comedown, with the London band’s latest single ‘Never Get You Out Of My Mind’ strolling like Bombay Bicycle Club on sedatives.
It’s a subdued warm up for Pumarosa, who are intense and theatrical. Singer Isabel Munoz-Newsome is every bit the leading lady throughout, dressed in silver and clubbing her six string with a fur-topped drumstick to inject swift bursts of distorted guitar into the band’s disco noir. Dramatic live renditions of ‘Cecile’ and ‘Priestess’ are undoubtedly the big highlights, both grooving like Blondie circa ‘Eat To The Beat’ and provoking Munoz-Newsome to move in the middle of the stage like a flickering flame.
Feeling slightly dishevelled on the sizzling Friday morning, Declan McKenna throws us a J. Lo-shaped curveball during a stripped back show outside Wagner Hall. With just bass and cajon for support, Lopez‘s ‘Get Right’ is given a twinkling acoustic makeover, with McKenna‘s soft rasp and intricate fretwork turning the mid-noughties floorfiller into something rather emotive.
It eases us into the day and so with 2 for £3 cans of G&T as fuel for the road, the Spiegeltent beckons. There, amid the sort of flashing red and green lights you’d expect to see blinking at a Year 7 disco, Belfast’s Pleasure Beach treat the sweltering big top to a set brimming with soaring Sprinsteen-inspired rock epics. The glitter-spangled quintet’s closing combo of ‘Go’ and ‘Magic Mountain’ shake the onlooking mass into life, with the latter sounding like The War On Drugs covering Dire Straits‘ ‘Walk Of Life’ before its colossal conclusion of wailing solos and crashing symbols.
Back in the centre of town, the streets are alive with clinking pint glasses and introductions forgotten on the spot. It’s here on The New Road Stage that The Dunwells appear to gain themselves a small army of new fans with their euphoric guitar pop. Opener ‘Communicate’ is the Yorkshire foursome’s biggest moment, a stadium-ready standout that straddles the gap between Dry The River and Hozier.
Over at a cram-full Coalition mere metres from the shingle beach, another artist makes their claim to headline whopping arena shows. With her Lianne La Havas-like aura and tiki bar waitress chic, London’s Izzy Bizu oozes star quality with a cooing voice to melt hearts. The breezy feelgood R&B tunes come effortlessly one after the other, with a soul-infused cover of Outkast‘s ‘Ms. Jackson’ and the mammoth pop hit ‘White Tiger’ soundtracking the dingy loved-up club as it sways and swoons.
Such scenes are multiplied back at Komedia, where London soul man Samm Henshaw leaves us hangjawed and hungry to hit the repeat button. From the thunderous opening bars of ‘Autonomy (Slave)’, he has the swarm of wristband holders in the palm of his hand, whether it be howling every word to an impromptu cover of The Temptations‘ ‘My Girl’ or swaying and finger-clicking in sync to velvety ballad ‘Only Wanna Be With You’. Immaculate throughout, closer ‘Better’ is the final piece of the jigsaw, which sees the audience become Henshaw’s gospel choir with some fervent call and response. Instantly, we know his stint will not be topped.
Some hours later, we make our way back by the light of the moon to catch duo Formation on the very same stage. The South Londoners bring their own party spirit, with their fidgety electro pop recalling The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, and latest single ‘Pleasure’ makes knees jerk and arms flail inside the sweat-veiled room. It’s a fitting conclusion to a day that brims with brilliance.
On Saturday, gig pinball is initially marred by a dull sky and drizzle, but the damp can’t dismantle Chicago’s Cullen Omori. The former Smith Westerns frontman dons jazzy socks and pumps, and airs cuts from his phenomenal solo album ‘New Misery’ to an infatuated few downstairs in Bleach. Like his ex-band’s best LP ‘Dye It Blonde’, the huge hooks come thick and fast: ‘Hey Girl’‘s cavernous refrain ricochets off the walls, ‘Sour Silk’‘s eery sample sparkles and ‘Cinnamon’‘s sugar rush masks its gloom-laden lyrics.
The earwormers continue in the corner of the bar with California’s Day Wave, who swoop in with a string of quickfire guitar pop ditties. The infectious melodies of ‘Come Home Now’, ‘Drag’ and ‘We Try But We Don’t Fit In’ rattle around the cranium, each slightly more contagious than the last. Rain drops tap at the window, but each tune, wrapped in its distinct atmosphere of 80s synths and lo-fi six strings, evokes endless beaches and sounds like a hybrid between The Drums and The Strokes.
The snaking queue for the Mystery Jets outside Corn Exchange is one of suffocating bustle and dwindling hope, so we climb up the sort of hill that makes buses groan to Brighton Youth Centre, where bring your own is in full swing and Australia’s Hockey Dad unleash their brand of hazy blast of surf rock. With technicolour sprays of light as their backdrop, the dynamic duo fill the shabby little hall with a glorious noise and the Surfer Blood-like slacker pop of ‘Too Tired’ is their turn’s imitable crowning point.
Come nightfall, we head to The Fiddler’s Elbow on a wicked whisper that hometown heroes Royal Blood are to play a tiddly marquee on the neighbouring cobbled street. Many beers are sunk in baited anticipation, The Ordinary Boys come and go, but alas the rumoured secret guests never show. Sorrows are drowned back at the Spiegeltent where a finale of indie disco classics revitalise weary bones and keep the craft brews flowing until the birds begin to chirp. Same again next year? Absolutely.