Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not Just for Hipsters: Great Escape Festival 2009

If you've never been to The Great Escape, you'd be forgiven for dismissing it as a purely 'young and trendy' festival, full of the sort of bands loved by hipsters in skinny jeans and Wayfarers. You may also be aware that it's a music industry festival, organised as a showcase for new and emerging artists and attended by hundreds of journalists and music 'people'. Personally I think it's pitched as a hipster festival because they are perceived as having the most clout in the rise or fall of pop music. But beneath those layers of industry spin and round-the-corner queues for the Maccabees, there is almost a separate festival going on, if only you know where to look.

My Great Escape motto this year was "If they wouldn't play it on Freakzone, I'm not going", and I pretty much managed to stick by this philosophy throughout. There were a few more mainstream bands on the agenda, but even those were at the alternative end of the spectrum, and more likely to be played by Radcliffe & Maconie than Jo Whiley. I also have a strict policy against queuing at the Great Escape. I can't see the point in standing in line for ages to possibly see the last ten minutes of a set when there's so much else on offer. If I really really want to see a particular band, I'll book tickets to one of their tour dates rather than hold out for them at a festival.

For me, Great Escape is all about expanding my music collection, not worshipping bands that I already love. Apart from Thomas Truax, who I had seen only recently (and wanted to introduce to Ant, who hadn't), all the bands that we saw this year were totally new to us. About half of them were good enough for me to want to go out and buy their CD, some were sufficiently amusing to stay and watch for a couple of songs, and one or two made us run for the hills. But all in all, it was a good festival, and we hardly had to negotiate any hipsters (although I did laugh at plenty in the street) along the way.

The first band we saw on Thursday night was Gablé, whose billing as a 'lo-fi avante-garde experimental trio from Paris', seemed to fit nicely with the Freakzone-ish prerequisite and also appealed to my Francophile leanings. Feeling terribly self conscious as the only ones waiting outside the venue, we almost didn't go in, but I'm so glad we did - I cannot tell you how much I loved this band. Their strange and sometimes unnerving tales - told with amusing relish and furnished with all manner of lo-fi accompaniments - revealed a deep appreciation of the weirder side of life, and made us laugh out loud.

A few more stragglers turned up during the set and eventually there were enough of us to make some well-deserved appreciative noises between songs. Despite the poor turnout, the band members - two guys and a girl - all continued to smile in a strangely contented manner that seemed to suggest they were in possession of a delicious secret. I went away feeling as though I had acquired a brilliant secret of my own in having discovered them, and thinking that it would be hard for any other band at the festival to live up to their bonkers brilliance.

After Gablé, we stayed on at the Unitarian church to watch Soap& Skin, who I'd listened to and liked during my pre-festival Spotify/Last.fm/MySpace research. I'd been intrigued by the sweeping piano arrangements and melancholic Sigur Ros style vocals, and was hoping for a tingly, intimate experience in this atmospheric little venue. What actually happened was an unfortunately discordant conflict between grand piano, laptop and unsteady vocals - and a swift exit by us. After this less than pleasing experience, we hopped across the road to the Pavilion to see The Acorn - a much more agreeable Canadian alt-country band with a touch of the Paul Simon about them. I had a little dance around, my first and last bop of the festival.

It has become something of a Great Escape tradition to end the day in a civilised fashion at the Duke of York's, which is where we discovered the next big delight of this year's festival, The Miserable Rich - a Brighton band who had somehow escaped my notice until now. Essentially a string quintet with a singer, these five hugely talented blokes bring a touch of classical elegance to their affectingly contemplative folky repertoire. So swept away was I by their performance, that I have failed to remember anything much about the band that followed - Teitur - although I think I enjoyed it.

Friday began at the Prince Albert with a disappointing set from Hanne Hukkelberg - who, Like Soap&Skin, had sounded promising on Spotify, but failed to pass the live performance test. After that we heard about five muffled minutes of Obijou from behind a huge pillar at the Arc, and decided that although they sounded interesting, the venue was just too crap to endure. Unlike in previous years, there didn't seem to be much of anything going on in the daytime, so after accidentally wandering into a (distinctly underwhelming) Charlatans rehearsal, we acted our age and went home for a quick disco nap.

The Naive New Beaters shook us well and truly awake again with their giddily ironic French hip-hop, but we were distinctly unimpressed with Django Django, who came on next at Above Audio. A quick skip down to the end of the pier to catch the end of an intense set by Norwegian rockers Harrys Gym was worth the windswept trip, then it was back into town for The Phantom Band at the Pavilion. But the day's real revelations didn't commence until we went entirely on spec to see Elizabeth at the Basement. Both venue and band were brand new to us, and both were equally impressive. The Basement is a cosy underground spot in the North Laine, with unusual stepped sides, where you can lay back on cushions to watch the band, and the perfect place to enjoy the eerie offerings of electro-opera-marvel Elizabeth.

Once again, we concluded our evening with tea and cake and a comfy seat (yes, we are old) at the Duke of York's, where Friday night was Nordic night. Jolly Icelandic band Hjaltalin kept us awake with bassoons and violins and some kooky between-songs banter, then Norwegian Thomas Dybdahl soothed us off to sleep (almost) with his surprisingly authentic-sounding alt-country Americana.

On Saturday we were joined by my 18 year old cousin Barnaby, and I was a little nervous that he might not be into the more alternative stuff on mine and Ant's gig wishlist. But thankfully he's not a typical teenager, and was quite open-mindedly up for some more esoteric musical exploration. After a couple of lame daytime gigs that do not even warrant a mention, we decided to abandon the Great Escape for a couple of hours and do some Open Houses instead. Things rebooted in the evening with Mechanical Bride at the Sallis Benney where the combination of a refreshingly decent PA and the band's tight, experimental Celtic-tinged folk was a good kick-off. But nothing could have prepared us for what came next.

In the less than salubrious setting of the dingy Ocean Rooms basement, I lost my heart, soul and all sense of reality to The Low Anthem. Even the usual clique of chatty bints behind me were swiftly silenced when singer Ben Miller opened his mouth; such a haunting and utterly disarming voice I have never heard. My legs turned to jelly as I stood breathless and in awe throughout their mind-blowing set. The other two band members, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams, proved just as jaw-droppingly skillful, switching with ease between all kinds of instruments and providing spine-tingling vocal harmonies. Just as you found yourself bestilled and bewitched by a delicately sorrowful ballad, they'd shake things up with a rugged, whisky-swigging country rock-out. It was all totally unexpected and beautifully accomplished, knocking spots off anything else we'd heard so far.

It would have been difficult for even the finest of acts to match such a deeply affecting performance, but I doubt whether Mothlite would have impressed me in any context. Now I'm all for noodling electro post-rock, but this was the most humourless, self-indulgent tosh I have heard in a long time. It was like watching four guys having their own personal bedroom stoner sessions, oblivious to each other and their audience. Ant seemed to be enjoying it though, so we stayed to the end, trying to see the funny side. Things picked up back at the Albert, with Woodpigeon, who sounded nice - but the room was so hot that we had to leave after one song. Kate Rogers Band at the more temperate Unitarian church was pleasant enough, but felt so pedestrian after The Low Anthem, so we left that and hung out until the grand finale of the festival, Thomas Truax.

I wrote about Thomas earlier this year, after I saw him live at the Freebutt. Since then I've reviewed his latest album, Songs from the Films of David Lynch, and was keen to see the new stuff performed live. Apart from the fact that his set was curfewed after only a few songs, it was a stonking gig and a good lively turn-out. I could tell by the appreciative grins on both Ant and Barnaby's faces that they were as swept up in the madcap world of Truax as I had been the first time, and it was the perfect end to another Great Escape.

1 comment:

  1. The Great Escape 09 was pure class! I loved Hockey's set and Dream Tribes were absolutely brilliant.


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