Brighton’s annual festival of musical discovery, The Great Escape, is one of the major opening acts of the British festival season and every year it sets an ever-raising bar for the rest to follow. Over its fourteen year lifespan, this seamlessly organised festival has unearthed a plethora of talent, springboarding the careers of many now-household names, including the likes of Adele, Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran. This time last year, an endearing, sensational singer/songwriter by the name of Lewis Capaldi played a small, intimate set by the beach only to see his career skyrocket thereafter, and sees him returning this year as a ‘spotlight’ act.
Although the scale of The Great Escape is enormous, with over 500 bands performing across more than 30 venues, the festival retains an endearing, close-knit intimacy. Many of the venues are small clubs and bars, ensuring audiences are never far from the action, as well as quirky pop-up venues that offer unforgettable musical experiences such as churches and beach-side stages. This setting, combined with a line-up that covers all genres imaginable, from an array of countries, provides a level of diversity and variation that you simply can’t find anywhere else over the festival season, making this annual weekend of discovery a truly unique and memorable experience.
We begin our three day campaign of talent spotting at the Casablanca Jazz Club, home for the next 30 minutes to singer/songwriter James Gillespie, and if we’d left for home after this one set, we’d be happy enough with our spoils. Gillespie’s wonderfully smokey, gravelly voice and forcefully strummed blues-inspired chords mine their way straight into your bones, shaking your soul awake. Hit song What You Do stands out as a crowd pleaser, but it’s Daredevil that makes the biggest impact; its message about the need to grow up and leave your carefree youth behind if you want to retain the one you love, is a particularly relatable one. Gillespie’s personable, likeable banter between songs gives even more cause for commendation, making this a fantastic start to a packed itinerary ahead. 9/10
On record, Cloth’s gentle, sophisticated pop-rock is warm and inviting, but unfortunately the nuances of the Scottish trio’s studio sound is lost on stage. The serenity of the gently strummed guitars is continuously overwhelmed by a deafening snare drum, and beneath, the almost-breathed vocals of Rachael Swinton are sadly inaudible. Fans of the band’s recorded material can attest to the potential lurking in this three-piece, but some work is needed to translate this into an indulgent live show. 4/10
From a solo blues-inspired act, to pop-rock to Malphino, it’s the variety that makes this one of the best festivals in the calendar. With a stage setup that consists of an an accordion, double bass, keyboards, sampler, guitars, bongos and various assorted percussion items, it’s one of the most eclectic and unique sets of the weekend, and the first to give us that sense that “you just had to be there”. The band’s name is a fictional island that the members purport to be from, and the ‘national anthem’ of the island is one the highlights of the performance. From start to finish, Malphino’s collection of instruments create the essence of a tranquil tropical island getaway and throughout, the crowd wear smiles as wide as this act’s range of creativity. 9/10
We head to Coalition next, the 500-capacity venue by the beach, which housed a phenomenal Lewis Capaldi performance last year. Hoping to follow in his footsteps are Belle Mt, an alt-pop act masterminded by songwriter Matt Belmont. Performing live as a three-piece, the band serve up waves of sophisticated, mature alt-pop, with stunning vocals and soaring melodies, most notably on huge tracks Hollow and Hydra. Whatever they’re putting in the water at Coalition is certainly doing the trick, as another act heads off stage to rapturous applause. Expect good things to come from this act in the future. 8/10
We stick around at Coalition to catch the opening of the young and promising New Zealand-based pop act Drax Project. Though their foundations are similar to the act before them – creating music from synths, drums and bass – their sound is much poppier, with an impressive R&B slant on the vocals. At times the electronic elements are too prominent, draining some of the emotion from the songs, but in turn this rouses plenty of enthusiasm from the crowd, which is just what the festival audience is crying out for. 6/10
Volks often plays host to the alternative bands at The Great Escape and it’s where we head next to check out rapidly growing emo-punk outfit Hot Milk. Fresh from releasing their debut EP Are You Feeling Alive?, the band waste no time hammering new tracks straight into our eardrums, erupting onto the stage with bags of energy and enthusiasm. The Manchester quartet’s co-vocalists Han Mee and Jim Shaw have fantastic chemistry on stage, trading energy and attitude as seamlessly as their melodies, and with the vocal ability to replicate their studio work, it’s an impressive set to behold. Throughout the performance, Mee and Shaw work the crowd admirably, building up energy and are rewarded with plenty of hand-waving cooperation. Hot Milk perform with a supreme confidence that usually comes from years of experience, making them a definite act to look out for in the future. 8/10
Emily Burns brings our first day to an end with a series of uplifting pop songs. The mixture of electronic beats and traditional instruments brings enough ammunition to get the crowd worked up and Burns is blessed with the kind of warm vocal tone that you could happy hear all day, but her songs offer little variation throughout the set, and sadly bleed together towards the end. 5/10
Written by: Mark Johnson