With over 450 artists at thirty plus venues, this year’s Great Escape in Brighton shapes up to be an unrivalled jaunt through the new musical wilderness.
It starts in style. On Thursday at noon, we emerge bleary-eyed but bushy-tailed and make our way to Patterns on the seafront in spite of ominous weather warnings. There, a stone’s throw from the shingle beach, Liverpool-based duo Her’s treat the packed upstairs room to off-kilter guitar music in an attempt to lure the blistering sunshine. Band members Audun Laading and Stephen Fitzpatrick are a charming combination throughout, with four-chord surf romp ‘Speed Racer’ and jangly dream-pop ballad ‘I’ll Try’ the infectious high-points of a set that’s incontestably top drawer.
En route to The Castle Street Gymnasium, with the melody-crammed songs of Her’s still rattling around our cranium, we make a detour to The Black Lion, where West London newcomers Weird Milk fill the cobble-fronted pub with shimmering, Merseybeat-indebted sounds. ‘This Close’ comes cloaked in warm, tingly nostalgia, thanks to an evocative fog of sun-dappled guitars and velvety harmonies that nod to Turner/Kane supergroup The Last Shadow Puppets.
Also undeniably impressive are fellow Big Smoke dwellers White Kite, who wow a fortunate few on the border of Hove. The electro-pop group – whose 80s-tinged hooks feel both familiar and fresh – treat Castle Street’s fitness hub to sleek beats, jagged guitars and kaleidoscopic synths, with distinctive debut single ‘Swans’ proving to be even more thrilling in the flesh.
Then the heavens open and it rains pitchforks and hammer handles as we scamper across town to East Street Tap, where End Of The Trail Records welcome Charlie and the Villas. The torrential weather can’t dampen our spirits though, because the Brighton-based newcomers make dreamy melody-rich music that evokes the dog days of summer. The collective led by songwriter Charlie Thomas especially impress with hooky double A-side tracks ‘It Ain’t Easy’ and ‘I’ll Wonder Again’, which fuse folk with dreamy synth-pop in the vein of Minnesota’s Hippo Campus.
Over at Coalition some hours later, Swimming Tapes dazzle with a slew of shimmering ditties that echo the lackadaisical licks and wistful 60s folk-pop harmonies of Real Estate. The crowd are sodden and it’s even raining in some parts of the venue courtesy of a leaky roof, but the London-based quintet bring the feelgood vibes with washed-out single ‘Tides’, celestial new track ‘Queen’s Parade’ and sun-tinged closer ‘Set The Fire’.
At the other end of the guitar-pop spectrum are The Amazons, whose thunderous rock ‘n’ roll makes the Brighton Centre‘s East Wing shake and shudder. The Reading four-piece announce their arrival with cacophonous shrieks and a frenzy of crunching riffs and cymbals, and from that moment on their galvanizing stint is an assortment of arena-primed anthems (‘Black Magic’), frenetic rock stonkers for the terraces (‘Junk Food Forever’) and impassioned refrains that tip their hat to The Killers (‘Ultraviolet’).
With the crowd sufficiently warmed up, Hackney-based indie-pop quartet Flyte woo with a mélange of originals and covers. Frontman Will Taylor & Co actively bring things down a few notches in reaction to The Amazons’ onslaught, opening with a shiver-inducing a cappella reimagining of Canadian’s Alvvays (‘Archie, Marry Me’), before sending hearts a-flutter with 60s-ish new tune ‘Cathy Come Home’, a glorious reworking of ‘Wings of Love’ by Swedish supergroup Liv and infectious single ‘Victoria Falls’.
After a swift trot to Komedia in the heart of the North Laines, Aussie group Parcels wow in the chock-full main room and leave us hungry to hit the repeat button – just as soul man Samm Henshaw did at the same venue last year. The five-strong funk-pop band demand superlatives from the get-go, sending the room into near-meltdown with the massive-sounding ‘Gamesofluck’ and the earworming ‘Older’. Their vibrant blend of off-kilter disco, funky Chic-like guitarwork and glorious gang harmonies unite the dancefloor throughout, inviting a rapturous reaction, and as the curtain falls on their electrifying hip-rippling set, we know that this Parcels show will reign supreme over Great Escape 2017.
The next day, we’re at Shipwright’s Yard – a little sun trap that’s graced by Theme Park as part of sister event The Alternative Escape. The north London trio are the perfect soundtrack as the Friday lunchtime rays sneak through, performing tropical-tinged indie-funk old and new to the bustling enclosure. Their 2013 forays ‘Jamaica’ and ‘Two Hours’ still gleam, but recent tune ‘LA (Is Stealing My Friends)’ marks a heavier Friendly Fires-ish departure for the band that could see them muscle back to the fore.
Limbered up and ready for more, vintage clothing shop Beyond Retro is our next port of call, where indie-pop quartet Marsicans exhilarate with a set that overspills with oomph. Looking down on the ram-packed warehouse from upstairs above the till, the Leeds gang of four unveil their giddy guitar pop anthems with a torrent of energy, pinging through a scintillating setlist that includes dirty pop ditty ‘Friends’, feverish indie anthem ‘Swimming’ and The 1975-ish ‘Absence’.
Another band that rarely dip below full throttle are The Districts, who take the Brighton Centre‘s East Wing on a thrill ride as the day is swallowed by darkness. The Pennsylvanian band’s high-octane blues-infused rock gets hearts racing from the outset, chiefly due to the bourbon-fuelled grit of lead singer Rob Grote, who delivers each note with vein-popping ferocity. It’s one rousing performance from the frontman, reigned in only on emotive closer ‘Ordinary Day’, which leaves a lump in the throat as it reaches an epic climax.
Feeling slightly dishevelled on the warm and blustery Saturday morning, we head post-haste to the Queens Hotel where Lost In The Manor‘s takeover stage is kickstarted by Bokito. The London-Irish five-piece – who invited an overwhelming response at our recent London gig at The Finsbury – do not disappoint, letting lose with an invigorating set that slaloms between Afro-funk and tropical indie pop. Debut single ‘Better At Getting Worse’ is their set’s pinnacle, with its glinting organ, Vampire Weekend-like rhythm and explosive chorus turning up the heat in an already sweaty room.
It’s in stark contrast with the vibe over at Patterns, where London-based duo Geowulf provide a cathartic soundtrack that hypnotises and soothes. The boy-girl twosome – who originally met as teens on the Australian coast – channel Fleetwood Mac with a stripped-back set of hazy 70s-tinged dream pop in the pitch-black downstairs room. Throughout, their music carries a certain soft-focus nostalgia, with cooing vocals, Omnichord swipes and lapping waves of guitar combining on their timeless singles ‘Don’t Talk About You’ and ‘Saltwater’.
Back at the airless Queens Hotel, HIDDEN HERD favourites Childcare pick up where Bokito left off with a rip-roaring performance on Lost In The Manor‘s stage. The snaking queue outside promises much, and the eclectic art-rockers hold up to the buzz with razor-tight reproductions of their recorded output to-date. With each tune, the London band raise the bar: opener ‘Film Club’ is a hook-infested gem, latest single ‘Dust’ brims with angular riffs à la Franz Ferdinand circa their eponymous debut and fantastic finale ‘Kiss?’ sees main man Ed Cares scale the speaker system to lead the room through the song’s emphatic refrain.
With Childcare‘s stellar gig firmly lodged in our memory and an afternoon of park sun under our belt, we rock up to the Fiddlers Elbow where The Island Club‘s ray-soaked synth-pop dazzles at dusk. The Brighton band are a hit from the off, treating the makeshift gazebo outside the pub to sheeny guitar licks, euphoric choruses and sizzling atmospherics. All their umbrella-adorned concoctions ooze hazy summer vibes, but singles ‘Let Go’ and ‘Paper Kiss’ are their finest moments, recalling everyone from Friendly Fires to previous day performers Theme Park.
Then, with a heavy heart, it’s over to The Hub for our final watch of 2017. Under the arches, with the choppy sea as a witness, Penelope Isles are a tour de force from the first clangorous rumble of bass, airing a string of lo-fi fuzz-pop nuggets to a room that’s giddy and full to the gills. Technical issues mean the Brighton band’s magnificent set is over prematurely, but there’s still time for an epic extended version of grand finale ‘Gnarbone’ which builds and builds with dreamy hooks and murky chords before erupting like a volcano. It proves to be an emphatic conclusion to the three-day seaside showcase, embodying all the ramshackle DIY charm that makes this fest so damn unmissable. Until next year, Great Escape.