Review of The Great Escape 2011

As the UK's answer to South-By-Southwest, The Great Escape has firmly established itself as the most distinguished festival for new music in the whole of Europe. Situated across numerous venues in the quaintly picturesque seaside town of Brighton, it's the one event where the entire music industry converges for three days, while the rumour mill spins in overdrive with secret gigs being the talk of the weekend, some of which happen, many of which don't. Of course the most enjoyable feature of festival such as The Great Escape is being able to discover a host of new bands before they've broken through pretty much anywhere outside of their hometowns, and while a smattering of more established artists also take to the stages here, it's a treasure trove of undiscovered gems.

The Great Escape

With mouth-watering daytime schedules equally as busy as those in the evening, there's always a healthy selection of matinee showcases to whet the appetite. The lovely people from Popkomm in Berlin may have been handing out free bottles of Konig Pilsner to entice punters through Audio's doors, but it was the upbeat folk of Dry The River and soulful electronica of Lucy Swann that kept us in the venue for the next hour or so.

Not that The Great Escape is confined to indoor venues, as the Relentless street party taking place next to Brighton library attracts a sizeable crowd for Aussie four-piece Cloud Control. Playing a shortened stripped down set this afternoon, 'Gold Canary' and 'Nothing In The Water We Can't Fight' both sounding anthemic, even in this intimately acoustic setting.

The garage-like confines of The Green Door Store, hidden away on one of Brighton's many incongruous plays host to the one man drum and bass stylings of Luke Abbott and Echo Lake's dream emblazoned shoegaze. While the former draws the odd soft shoe shuffle from the sparse audience in front of him, the latter suffers due to poor sound distorting Linda Jarvis' usually opulent vocals.

The four girl psychedelic trip of Warpaint are an entirely different proposition altogether. Mesmerising from first to last, the likes of 'Shadows' and 'Bees' cascading intently through the Corn Exchange's vast hall, bass player Jenny Lindberg proving particularly transfixing as she sways too and fro throughout, eyes closed in sheer abandonment.

Back in Audio for the start of day two, Team Me start off sounding like a Wombats tribute band before turning into a hybrid of Mew and Jeniferever halfway through their set, prompting cries of "Where did that come from?" A stark transformation indeed, but one that's infinitely for the better. Even more astonishing are Sydney quartet The Jezabels, who in singer Hayley Mary possess one of the most captivating frontwomen this side of Polly Jean Harvey. Their five song set veers between insular and dramatic, the likes of 'Mace Spray' and 'Dark Storm' reminding us of Kate Bush fronting Coldplay. As bold predictions go, we'd expect these to be headlining stadiums in the none too distant future. Yes, that good.

Equally engaging are Yaaks, a band just as likely to mix Foals style polyrhythms with reverb heavy guitars not to mention a brass section that recalls early eighties agit pop outfits A Certain Ratio and The Redskins. We'd like to say they've invented their own genre, Mathgaze, or as someone succinctly put it, "Two Door Cinema Club if they grew a pair of bollocks". Later on, Jumping Ships play a set that reminds us of a younger At The Drive-In minus the tunes. However, with such a rousing display of vigour and energy, we've every confidence such intricacies will follow in due course.

Over in the tiny Hector's House, Reading's Tripwires play the kind of intelligent shoegaze blokes wearing black sporting floppy fringes used to die for back in 1991. Across the way underneath the arches on the sea front, Handsome Furs robotic disco punk provides a healthy precursor to The Radio Dept's textural ambience. Playing a set that combines both old and new material, their first visit to UK shores in what seems like an eternity unsurprisingly resulting in one of the busiest shows of the whole weekend. Highlights aplenty, the loudest cheers reserved for 'Worst Taste In Music' and 'Where Damage Isn't Already Done', their position as one of the most revered bands on the European underground circuit gracefully maintained.

Meanwhile back in the Corn Exchange, Katy B is kicking up a right storm with her dubstep-laced pop. Having released a surefire contender for album of the year already in 2011, her live show reaffirms why she is considered in many circles as one of the most exciting pop stars to emerge from these shores in years. 'Perfect Stranger' and 'Lights On' resonate intently, while a ravenous rendition of 'On A Mission' literally lifts the roof off the building while the floor shakes to the sound of a thousand pairs of feet dancing incessantly.

The evening drawing to a close, its left to Sheffield's Hey Sholay to remind us that guitar bands can make excellent pop music too. Drawing influences from sources that span the last three decades and beyond, there's a poise about them that brings to mind Leeds vastly underrated Duels or maybe even a less annoying Kaiser Chiefs.

Nottingham's Frontiers also throw their hat in the ring at the start of the third and final day with a distinguished performance in the basement of Komedia. While comparisons with The Cure and The Chameleons are made due in no small part to guitarist Charlie Burley's impressive array of pedals, there's a heavier, pop-driven edge to the likes of 'Alibi' and 'In Pursuit' that wouldn't sound out of place on daytime radio.

The much-anticipated arrival of EMA also turns out to be something of a revelation. Playing in the courtyard of Skint Records to an audience of mostly industry bodies. Coming on like a devilishly possessed hybrid of Karen O and Courtney Love, the venomous diatribe 'California' and equally dogmatic 'Butterfly Knife' offer a menacing antidote to the weekend's niceties. More importantly though, with debut long album 'Past Life Martyred Saints' almost certain to figure in most end of year best of lists, her live show justifiably confirms what most observers were hoping; a star is born.

With Becoming Real offering more minimal beats of the laptop induced variety and Dry The River seemingly everywhere this weekend (we count their early evening slot at Concorde as being their fifth show in three days), it takes the sophisticated yet heartbreakingly solemn deliveries of The Antlers to restore parity. Besieged by technical difficulties throughout, their short set consisting entirely of material from new album 'Burst Apart' still manages to move even the most hardened of souls, coming on like Prince fronting a less convoluted Spiritualized in the process.

Back in Komedia, Guillemots are reminding a packed audience why they're still one of the most underrated bands of the past decade. Mixing material from the still excellent 'Through The Windowpane' with this year's 'Walk The River', Fyfe Dangerfield and his three trusted accomplices resonate class, as does an impeccable 'Trains To Brazil'.

Having heard rumours all day that Snoop Dogg is to make a secret appearance, mobile phones and blackberries call and respond without much luck, and Concorde's Vice sponsored after party seems the most suitable option. Manchester's D/R/U/G/S work astoundingly well in such a setting, while London's Factory Floor demonstrate why they're easily the most original band of the past ten years to the point where one trouserless punter clambers on top of Niki Colk's speakers, dancing like a refuge from Castlemorton or such of that ilk.

By the end of their set, no one is in any doubt that their Germanic hybrid of dance infused noise is the perfect way to round such an eventful and enjoyable weekend off. While still in its infancy compared to other festivals of a similar nature, this year's incredible line-up almost certainly ensured The Great Escape's elevation into the festival premier league of Great Britain.

With only 362 days to go, Contact is already counting down until next year! A truly remarkable weekend.

Dom Gourlay

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