Thursday 18th May 2017. There’s an air of excitement buzzing between the walls of the city. Stuffed inside a kitchen, making pizza, my FOMO levels have peaked. Radio one accompanies me, taunting me, broadcasting live from The Great Escape, and I can feel the anticipation of the start of the festival through the airwaves in live sets from Sigrid and The Magic Gang. As I finally finish work – pizza in one hand, beer can in the other – I make my way into the town centre.
In summertime Brighton and Hove is a city that really comes to life. It becomes a host of never ending festivals, bursting at the seams with culture and showing off its diversity of music, art, comedy and theatre. Brightonians consistently give off the impression that they’re on holiday, and visitors are often left wondering what we do for employment. Nonetheless, it is a magical place: full of street performances, buskers, pavement artists and poets and, of course, the renowned Disco Bunny. When the annual multi-venue music festival The Great Escape comes around in May, it becomes a Mecca for musicians, music lovers, industry types looking to sign the big thing and people just looking for a boozy weekend away. The Alternative Escape, running parallel, soothes the snobbery of the official festival and allows for those on a budget to get involved too. In fact, for anyone thinking about purchasing a ticket for next year, I recommend not too. Based on my experiences over the last few years, there are simply so many great free events.
This year, adding to my excitement of the weekend, I had the privilege of performing with my band Thyla. In exchange for being exposed to the music industry’s people in suits and a new crowd, we ended up missing half the other bands we wanted to see and had to ration our drinking (which is a lot harder than you’d think) – take note kids, being in a band is not as cool as it looks. That said, it was pretty damn great to be able to take the stage at a festival with such a good rep. for emerging talent. And yes – we were obviously incredible.
From work I headed straight to The Black Lion pub to catch Shame -the politically driven band notorious for their intense live performances. The room was full to the brim and tense before the start of the set, and – living up to their reputation – they delivered an unforgettably entertaining show. Shame have built an identity around a lyrical disdain towards the current pop culture of ‘relatable not debatable’ music, and whether or not you’re a fan, you will always take something away with you from their shows. In the anti-establishment spirit, the set was dramatically cut short by a fight between the band and bouncers. Yeah, we all got kicked out of the pub, but that only added to the vibe.
I sought refuge in the Mesmerist round the corner, where its own little festival of neo-soul seemed to be taking place accompanied by a congregation of Bimm students. Confession time – it was claustrophobic and I felt uncomfortably nostalgic as it reminded me of my university years. Luckily I quickly escaped to the Speigeltent: a true sanctuary, and possibly the best thing about the Brighton festival. It’s the home of several pop-up bars in an enclosure that vibrates with the essence of festival, where you can get lost, and separate yourself from reality for a short amount of time. It also hosts an array of shows from comedy, theatre, burlesque shows and caged fire dancing. It’s a safe escapist bet if you’re lost for what do to any day of the week throughout May.
I went to bed that night feeling like it was Christmas Eve, looking forward to the assembly line of gigs I had planned the following day. I woke to the sound of rain spattering on my bedroom window and I made my way down to the Mucky Duck in raincoat attire. Our sound check, packed with local punters wondering what the hell we were doing playing in their pub, was busy enough to make it feel like a full gig, and we paid two parking tickets for the privilege.
Before our set, I ran to the end of the pier to catch Abattoir Blues’ set at Horatio’s bar. The band blend the aggression of post-punk sensibilities with a knack for great songwriting and buried beneath the shouts of heartfelt poetry lies a great pop melody. Their powerful show was the perfect way to gear up for performing, lifting my spirits against the dampening rain.
I made it back to the Mucky Duck just in time for Dama Scout, a band I’d seen many times, though never like this. The band is tipped for a breakthrough 2017 – and I can totally see why. Their crunchy bass balances blissfully with the soft, delicate vocals, offering a genuinely fresh approach to alternative music. Dama are not afraid of experimenting with off-kilter arrangements, but they’ve retained their commercial appeal. Their mesmerising set ended with their single ‘Paper Boy’, building to a hypnotic, slow motion chorus that left us awe-struck.
And then we were up. I stepped on stage in front of the sweatiest, packed room I’d ever played in front of. We tumbled through our set with an intensity we only found within the atmospheric buzzing in the room encircling the Great Escape. We rushed off, up the Morrison’s elevator, through the car park and into my house to drop our gear off. In the hour we had to kill we rendezvoused at the Speigeltent, got entertained by some mimes and made our way to the next gig: Brighton electric.
The venue had an atmosphere of a house party and the cocktails served at the bar seemed to be free. We walked into Loa Loa’s thrashing set of shouting gritty garage rock, a fitting sound for the evening which was contrasted by the jazz bass of Stanley Clarke oozing out of the speakers from behind the bar in the next room. I didn’t think a time or a place for this music existed until now. We went onstage at 11:30pm to a bodily dense room, full with blurry-faced people, stickier than the last gig. Following were Tigercub and Yonaka. Afterwards we flocked to Sticky Mikes Frog Bar, where the whole of Brighton seemed to congregate.
Highlighting the festival on the Saturday was the gig at The Richmond pub, hosted by Echochamp, a collective and record label showcasing the best local bands. The queue spilled out the door of the over-filled venue. The Magic Gang really come into their own at this time of year, firing off banger after summery pop banger, with the crowd raucously (and painfully) engaged in their sing-a-long choruses. Later, the playful Sulky Boy delighted the stage with their bouncing rhythms, heady hooks and brooding confessions of love. Following were the expressive Porridge Radio who swung the mood to a more serious tone with their dynamically intense performance, reaching points of almost tearful reaction.
This is just a snapshot of three days in an English seaside town that has somehow made itself a hotbed of under-the-radar alternative music – a space that’s desperately needed. The Great Escape is labelled as Europe’s leading festival for new and emerging music, and it doesn’t disappoint. To support the volume of acts playing, unassuming venues in the form of cafés, hotels, gymnasiums and clothes shops pop up, playing host to the kinds of hidden gems that it’s difficult to believe exist outside of the online worlds of bandcamp and soundcloud. Even if you don’t want to pay up, make sure you’re in Brighton this time next year. I only touched the surface.
Words by Daniel Hole