Brighton has always been a microcosm of creatives, eccentrics and peculiar folk. But every May the city transforms. Gone are the stag and hen dos, instead curious cases of indie kids, music makers and well-heeled industry bods – who will be in trackies and cradling their heads by check out Sunday morning – embark on a pilgrimage to uncover the next big thing. No wonder with a history of pre-fame Adele, Wolf Alice, and Mumford and Sons gracing The Great Escape stages. Everyone wants the bragging right of seeing a star before they are officially discovered.
Yet, with over 500 emerging artists, across 30+ venues, it’s astounding how few people outside the music biz have actually heard of The Great Escape (TGE). Usually, we’re met with a “What’s that?” or “Ooh I love that song!” (emo banger by Boys Like Girls for anyone who needs reminding).
Maybe that’s why TGE feels so grassroots – it’s a place where everyone knows everyone. You see the same faces, in the same venues, working the same routes. Competitors call a truce, suits shed for shorts and shades, and despite most attendees ‘working’, it’s all play incredibly little work. Together festival-goers tether between exhaustion and exhilaration as they cram a year’s – or two due to lockdowns putting it on hold – worth of socialising and gigging into 72 hours. As The Amazons’ Matt Thomson eloquently put it, TGE is a weekend of “everyone, managers, labels mulling around up to no good”.
This year, we set ourselves the overly optimistic, and frankly impossible, task of documenting the entire weekend. Or at least as much as we could. So, be prepared for a mid-week festival fuelled by bands, booze, and caffeine.
Kickstarting our TGE was the Irish delight, Sinead O’Brien, at Amazon’s Beach Stage. Originally coming for the weather –TGE has its own weather system, where Wednesday and Sunday bookmarked a blistering weekend with rain – O’Brien’s punk poetry and striking riffs tempted us out of the sun and into the festival tent. The combination of layered guitars hooks, witty lyricism that scrutinises the mundanities of life and reverb-soaked vocals lulled the listener. Whilst her introverted charm enchanted, gluing their eyes to her. So much so, that when an encore was demanded, she left the crowd heartbroken as time restrictions denied their request. 6/10
Breaking this lassitude, sass Queen Iris Gold, bursts onto the stage. All technicolour and hair. Immediately proving how she earnt a Danish Grammy Award for ‘Best New Live Act’ in 2019. Hits tumbled after each other, vivacious pop melodies together with the soul and groove of R&B made it impossible for audiences to stay still. With the moves of James Brown and the flamboyancy of Prince, she soon coaxed her reluctant-to-sing audience out of their somewhat sober minds, turning silence to chants of “I say Iris, you say Gold”. 8/10
Venturing outside to the sunshine and MVT Stage – aka a converted trailer – Scottish indie rockers, The Voodoos, should have been the perfect summer band. But their bright arrangements and catchy vocals were difficult to enjoy with the thunderous bleed from the Amazon Stage. Also, whilst the bassist, Mick Bogan, adopted a Ringo head bop, the rest gave off an aloof style which was a personal turn off and encouraged a lot to treat the quartet as background music. 4/10
But all was not lost, for fierce feminists Crawlers reignited our excitement by parading the Amazon Beach Stage. After spending the last few years building a vibrant social media presence, the anti-establishment four-piece were now finally free to share their message in the flesh. Provoking anarchy, and asking important questions, like “Am I still hot in real life?”, the foursome are a force like no other. In a whirlwind of chaotic guitar riffs, female empowerment and no-fucks-given attitude, these emo goddesses (and Harry) united the audience. Every song a middle finger to patriarchy – “if it makes them feel uncomfortable, it’s because it’s true“. Causing some antiques of the traditional music industry to walk out with noses held high. Alas, pulling ourselves from Crawlers claws, we reluctantly dragged ourselves to our next venue before the end. Because that’s what friends do when ordered to check out another band. 8.5/10
So, we traded the beach for the dark dwelling of Volks for New Zealand five-piece, Banks Arcade. Shame the first track left us a little disappointed. But fear not because we were soon won over as the angsty rockers fluctuated between fight songs and party tunes. With drops all in the right places, the room soon flooded as more people piled in. Weirdly, there wasn’t a single phone thrust in the air or discreetly tapping away – minus us as we guiltily typed notes in the corner. Instead, every being was crammed into the tight space and fixated on the stage. Whilst some songs did lose momentum and cause some to vacate the bar, overall, for their first time in the UK, we’d say nice one lads. 6/10
Next up, Reading-based four-piece The Amazons were headlining one of our favourite venues, Chalk. Despite becoming pretty big since winning three Best Breakthrough Awards in 2016 with their self-titled debut album, we must admit we weren’t that familiar with them. But what little we had heard, was a mix of Royal Blood angst and the signature indie whine of artists like Catfish and the Bottlemen. Plus, we couldn’t shake the contradiction of a band comprised of men being named after the fiercest society of women known…Nevertheless, we found ourselves, backs against the bar, cradling a whisky and studying the crowd to get a better idea as to what the hype was about. As with most TGE gigs, the crowd was divided between hardcore fans moshing, and industry reps surveying from the side-lines. Yet, this had to be, by far, the loudest crowd of the day. The room was electrified as Matt Thomson‘s soaring voice felt limitless, bassist Elliot Briggs‘ harmonies perfectly complimented, and the rhythm persistent – their musicianship a spectacle proving their place as headliners. 9/10
To finish our night, we battled into Komedia Basement moments before it reached capacity to see sharp post-punkers Yard Act. With their debut album, The Overload, recently reaching number two in the UK charts, this was another must-see band. Despite being close to midnight, the crowd were absolutely living for the post-Brexit commentaries and the Brit-Pop-Meet-Punk-Rock hybrid. Singer James Smith’s awkward yet confident flair impeccably matched the satiric lyrics mocking societal norms, with his showmanship commanding the audience into a punk rock frenzy. 7/10
And this was only day one…
Written by: Corey Plant