This weekend I went to Brighton’s Great Escape Festival, which is Europe’s largest multi-venue new music festival. It was the 10th time I’ve attended in the event's 11 years.
Great Escape is truly international and one of its key characteristics is the colossal range of countries and genres it draws its artists from. This year I saw Poland’s answer to The Knife / Grimes, some incredible Finnish bubble-gum synth pop punk that drew influence from 60’s girl groups and garage rock ‘n’ roll and a fine new country artist, who didn’t hail from Nashville but Sydney, Australia to name just 3.
There was even a Latvian and Lithuanian artists showcase (something you don't get at any other UK festival for sure), which I didn't attend, but in hindsight I wish I had at least stopped by, because it appeared to me that many of the most interesting, creative and unusual artists playing this year's festival were coming from outside of the UK. It does worry me slightly that my home country has become so steeped in tradition that our pop music (and I use the term pop in the widest sense) has a tendency to veer towards the conservative and therefore the dull and generic.
However, wherever they are based in the world, virtually all of the artists I saw play this year were of a very high calibre. I managed to catch 38 acts, and I've selected 5 in this post that were my personal favourites.
Before I name those artists, a quick note about queues. One criticism that I often see levelled at Great Escape is that too many of the venues are full and that punters spend half their time queuing and then not getting in to see what they want. In the festival’s defence, I’ve been going for 10 years and even without a delegate pass (which allows you to queue jump) I’ve never not got in to where I wanted. It helps of course knowing the venue capacities, the walking distances to them and the relative popularity of the acts playing – but with a bit of advance planning and being prepared to turn up suitably early when necessary, I've never had a problem. Admittedly this year was the closest I have ever got to not getting in (Black Honey at the Wagner Hall) but I knew that I was taking a chance on this show, leaving it relatively late to arrive at the venue as there was another gig I desperately wanted to see first on the other side of town. However, I made it in by the skin of my teeth and if I hadn’t, I already had a plan B of alternative artists to visit that I was confident wouldn't be full.
So here are the 5 acts that absolutely blew me away at Great Escape, followed by a list of all the bands I saw:
Jain (Paganini Ballroom)
The most engaging performance I saw all weekend in one of the most charming spaces (chandeliers, a Juliet balcony, drapes). What on paper looked terrible (a vocalist with a small box that wasn’t much more than a karaoke machine and a bunch of clichéd audience participation tricks) turned into one big bouncing party, made possible by French singer Jain’s adorable polite quirkiness and her intriguing pop songs that took reference from both African and hip-hop beats. It left me with a huge smile on my face. Whilst she's relatively unknown in the UK her song Come has already been a number one hit in her own country. It needs a push here. Viva La France!
Black Honey (Wagner Hall)
The atmosphere in the Wagner Hall was more TV studio than gig venue, with a lighting rig that far exceeds its small capacity and cameras swinging above the audiences heads to film the action on behalf of Vevo. However, what it did do as a space was give a sense of what Black Honey could be. I’ve seen them play in grotty pubs and toilet venues but at Wagner Hall they stepped up to show how exhilarating they can be on a larger stage, with charismatic singer Izzy snarling her way through the bands punchy, powerful set.
Let’s Eat Grandma (The Haunt)
There was a sign in the Haunt that said that you can double your spirit for only £1.50. Well certainly Let’s Eat Grandma’s leftfield experimental ghostly pop added some extra value. Fighting much of the conservatism in so called ‘alternative’ music with their own world view on things, this Let’s Eat Grandma show felt like you were seeing someone discovering music and performance in a public playground and they were going to explore every single corner of it, whatever the results, in front of your eyes.
Although some people on Soundcloud's comments had already guessed who ‘mystery’ artist Seramic is (yes, he’s already a well-established singer songwriter who has released more than one album) we needed to go and see him in person to confirm if they were right and to see if the live form could match up to the three recorded songs he’s put out on line so far. If you think I’m going to just tell you who he is at this stage, you’re wrong – you’ll have to do your own mini detective work. However, what I can tell you is this guy is the real deal. Raw, soulful, powerful and clearly a super talented musician, the early online buzz is worth it - and his show in the dark nightclub basement at Patterns was rammed to the very back.
Julia Jacklin (Komedia)
I saw two great country singers at Great Escape and could have chosen either as my fifth choice. One was Holly Macve, who I’ve written about before, the other was Australian Julia Jacklin whose woozy songs and mellow country tones bowled me over. Fans of the likes of Caitlin Rose will probably enjoy Julia.
Full list of artists I saw: Vallis Alps, Chiara Hunter, Slum Sociable, Julia Jacklin, Methyl Ethel, Northeast Party House, Sam Wills, Connie Constance, Tangerines, Will Joseph Cook, Let’s Eat Grandma, Jain, Jones, Anteros, Khruangbin, Annabel Allum, Xylaroo, Have You Ever Seen The Jane Fonda Aerobic VHS, Pleasure Beach, Seramic, Alice Jemima, Black Honey, Loyal, Declan McKenna, Blossoms, The Big Moon, Cadet, Glass, The Hunna, Yonaka, Esther Joy Lane, Holly Macve, Stevie Parker, Anna of the North, Cosovel, Money, Ekkah, Jagwar Ma (In the order I saw them)