Review of The Great Escape 2012

As the UK hub of all things liberal, Brighton's status as the undisputed city of culture shows shows no sign of coming under threat just yet. With its quirky boutiques, countless bars and venues, picturesque lanes and refreshing seaside location, it's easy to see why so many of London's media and music industry bods have chosen to relocate to the South East coast en masse. That it also hosts The Great Escape, now the biggest multi-venue industry showcase in Europe, being second only to Austin's South-By-Southwest speaks volumes. This year's event exceeding that of previous years, with twenty-seven participating venues playing host to over 300 artists across the festival's three days. On the down side, what that also means is even more clashes, venues not always running to schedule, and occasionally the hectic rush to get bands on and off stage in double quick time meaning technical issues such as soundchecks became secondary. And then of course there are the queues. Lots of them. This year, it seemed as though over half of The Great Escape's attendees were on delegate passes - normally the guaranteed way to gain entry to every venue - meaning even those of us with industry sanctioned accreditation experienced difficulty gaining entry to several showcase events.

The Great Escape

One thing about The Great Escape is that there's always a "buzz band" that gets everybody talking from Thursday lunchtime through to Sunday morning, and this year proved no different. Enter Palma Violets, a four-piece from London who've allegedly signed a six-figure deal with Rough Trade off the back of a handful of low key shows. Their four appearances here were met with the largest queues, not to mention a smattering of celebrity onlookers including New Order's Stephen Morris along with Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis. That Contactmusic tried unsuccessfully on three separate occasions to see what all the fuss was about tells its own story.

Indeed, some of the scheduling left a lot to be desired throughout. Our first venture of the weekend to catch French techno outfit College in the miniscule confines of the Prince Albert also ended with us watching the backs of people's heads rather than anything occurring on stage. Not that it took anything away from their repertoire, which was a glorious celebration of lo-fi soundscapes played through Korg orchestrated synths.

Nottingham four-piece Frontiers also managed to overcome questionable scheduling to play one of the most dynamic sets of the day. Sadly, only a handful of people made the effort to catch them. Fellow East Midlander Jake Bugg may have only just turned eighteen years of age, but his old fashioned blend of Dylan-esque structures channelled through a Miles Kane filter made him one of Thursday's most engaging prospects. While not necessarily to everyone's taste, there can be little disputing the self-penned likes of 'Trouble Town' and 'Lightning Bolt' display the maturity of someone far beyond his teenage years.

Canadian supergroup-of-sorts Eight And A Half may feature assorted members of Broken Social Scene and The Stills in their line-up, but this evening's set suggests they've a fair way to go if they're to convince anyone its little more than a vanity project. Another of the capital's buzz bands Savages also leave little to the imagination. Sure, they have the looks and the postures, but as far as any songs are concerned it's back to the drawing board and as far those Ian Curtis dance moves. Purrr-llleeeeaaase, NO.

It's left to Finnish trio Zebra & Snake to wrap up the first day in extravagant style. Think Ariel Pink fronting Arcade Fire with a penchant for slipping into Duran Duran's back catalogue and you're halfway there. Dramatic, curious, and incessantly danceable. They're arguably the most fun live act we witness all weekend.

Nursing hangovers and half digested breakfasts, day two is kickstarted by the luscious, ambient sounds of Bury St Edmunds trio The Soft. Loud yet disparate in equal measures, there's elements of UNKLE, Animal Collective and Slowdive in their make-up. Which is a good thing, naturally. Leeds grotpunks Eagulls also provide a lively wake-up call in the relatively cosy confines of the Queens Hotel. Playing a set consisting almost entirely of new material, their Wipers meets The Barracudas repertoire looks set for bigger stages as the summer progresses, and rightly so.

Heading across to the Coalition venue under the sea front arches, we're quite taken aback by Toronto's Odonis Odonis. Recently signed to Fat Cat Records, latest album 'Hollandaze' is aired almost in full, while the frenetic energy and mesmerising interplay between Dean Tzenos and Jarrod Gibson makes us believe we're watching No Age playing a speeded up version of Spacemen 3. Likewise fellow labelmates Paws, whose grunge schtick would be little more than passable on record, yet bristles with enthusiasm in the flesh to the point where bassist Matthew Scott spends the majority of their set playing on three strings.

Why We Were Promised Jetpacks are still considered an unknown quantity to many we're not quite sure, but once again the Edinburgh four-piece, and frontman Adam Thompson in particular, prove spellbinding from start to finish. Even dispensing with early single 'Quiet Little Voices' from tonight's set altogether in favour of a new song, they're an irrepressible force with a bucketload of tunes to match. That The Twilight Sad also have an extensive, and largely flawless back catalogue to choose from also speaks volumes for arguably one of the most consistent bands to emerge from UK territories in recent years. Frontman James Graham may be among the most intense in the business, and unlike Savages yesterday evening, he means every word venomously spat throughout their forty-five minute set.

Across the way in the Latest Music Bar, Stockton-On-Tees finest sons The Chapman Family play a frantic set to a venue packed beyond capacity. Stage invasions, equipment getting trashed and sweat dripping from the ceiling, they're another of those bands whose lack of commercial success is frankly baffling.

Saturday's schedule is opened by the mesmerising sonic assault that is The Naturals, a four-piece hailing from Bristol that specialise in mathrock structures augmented by a reverb-laden wall of noise. Or as someone succinctly put it, if Foals were a shoegaze band they'd surely sound like this. Breaking from watching bands to engage in the traditional mid-afternoon music industry quiz - our team finish 4th out of 14 which is no mean feat considering some of the musical brainboxes we pit our wits against - parity is restored courtesy of Simian Ghost. Sounding not unlike M83 fronted by Wayne Coyne, it's a transient reintroduction to the afternoon's live music extravaganza.

Once upon a time Aiden Grimshaw could be found singing for his life on a reality television show. Nowadays he's more likely to be seen mixing it with the indie crowd, and in excellent show stopper 'Curtain Call', may just have penned this year's answer to 'Glorious' by Andreas Johnson (remember that/him? You should.). Liverpool's Stealing Sheep make music bathed in harmonies with an element of witchcraft. Think a stripped down Warpaint deconstructing the first Coral record and you're in the right ballpark. They also have an armoury of great singles in waiting, the latest of which 'Shut Eye' causes near pandemonium in the claustrophobic confines of Life.

Struggling to gain entry to almost anywhere at this peak time of Saturday's programme, we notice there's no queue at Coalition where the ever dependable We Are Scientists blaze through a set of hits that were and ones that got away. Torn between a rock and a hard place and informed that queues elsewhere are now even more ridiculously longer than ever, we retire to our beds, another year's Great Escaping over.

Let's hope next year's event focuses more on better scheduling and less on trying to squeeze as much into as little time possible, as when the organisers get it right, there really is no better festival of its kind.

Dom Gourlay

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