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.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Classic Example of Kitsch Entertainment

Last night some friends and I went to see The Interstella Circus at the Spiegeltent, my only festival outing this year - apart from some Open Houses and of course the Great Escape last week (which I shall write about shortly). I suppose the mis-spelling of the word 'interstellar' should have been a clue as to the dodgy nature of the outfit, but it was my only free night, tickets were still available, and it was in one of my all-time favourite venues.

I've seen quite a few of these nu-circus type shows before - including the Caesar Twins, Le Grande Cirque, various acts at Lost Vagueness and other such nights, and the best of all by far, La Clique. Watching the incredible things acrobats and contortionists can do with their bodies never ceases to amaze and excite me, and I love the whole feel of a well executed sideshow cabaret. La Clique gets it so right with a wonderful mix of risque humour, seamless flow of acts and a great variety of talents. Unfortunately The Interstella Circus is nowhere near a well executed sideshow cabaret, nor did it posses any of these qualities.

From the moment the seedy compere came on stage reciting bad poetry not very well, it was clear that we were in for an evening of less than classy entertainment. To be fair to the individual acts, there were some impressive stunts and a few 'ooh' and 'ahh' moments, but where the show really fell down was during the links between acts. The re-rigging took much too long, without any adequate fill-in, leaving the audience shuffling uncomfortably in our seats.

Partly thanks to the beer consumed beforehand, and partly due to our collective appreciation of the more tawdry things in life, my friends and I were able to see the funny side. And to me personally it felt almost nostalgic, reminiscent of my summer season days in Eastbourne; an end-of-the pier nudge-nudge-wink-wink type show with more sequins than substance.

There is something strangely pleasing about this distinctly British variety of shabby entertainment, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We laughed, perhaps not for the right reasons, but still. We almost cried in memory of Judy when the singer (although I am not sure she really qualifies for that title) started to growl her way through the finale number, Get Happy. We swooned at the token eye-candy's rippling biceps, though were disappointed when only his T-Shirt was removed. We loved every cheap and tacky moment of it.

La Clique it most certainly isn't, but if you're in the market for some seedy seaside frolics, you could do worse than to down a few pints and 'roll-up roll-up' to the Interstella Circus. But don't blame me if you are appalled; because that is really the point.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

San Francisco, You Stole My Heart

"San Francisco has only one drawback. 'Tis hard to leave." - Rudyard Kipling

It is our first day in the city, and already I am falling in love. After the peace and quiet of Marin County, San Francisco feels loud and bustling, especially here in Chinatown. The silly hire car has been returned, and we're now exploring on foot. It's around that time of day when refreshment is required, but we're struggling to find a salubrious looking cafe. We sit down in the first half-decent looking place, only to discover that we have accidentally parachuted into the middle of a militant tea brewing lesson, hosted by a couple of hilariously camp Chinese tea-aficionados. Far too British to get up and leave, we sit tight and tacitly agree to run with it. Several tiny thimbles of weird and wacky teas and a fair few tea anecdotes later, our caffeine levels are nearly restored, and we politely buy a $12 packet of Lychee Black Tea, (good for the digestion, apparently) and scuttle off.

Back at the apartment over in Noe Valley, we're getting to know to our hosts, Tania and Philip - and feeling wonderfully welcomed already in their fabulous home. They recommend a local pasta joint, Emmy's, as a good place to eat nearby, and we head out for our first taste of San Francisco cuisine. Emmy's is packed, but we're happy to sit with a bottle of wine and wait for a table. When the food arrives it is hearty and plentiful, and well worth the wait. Thanks to an amusingly stoned waiter, we've had more than our share of wine, and are feeling rosy-cheeked and replete.

Thursday is designated shopping day, and I'm dragging Ant around the thrift stores of Mission, in search of vintage frocks. It's 11am and nothing is open (what time do people get up around here?), so we go and have cake and decide to head across to Castro. Apart from Cliff's Variety store - an amazing emporium of stationery and wigs - there is little in the way of shopping for me here, so we hop on a bus to Haight. I am in shopping nirvana; even Ant buys a couple of things. The day is going well. Then we reach Amoeba Records and all other plans are abandoned for the foreseeable future.

We're on our way out to dinner, walking down Valencia. Staggering across our path with an unwieldy shopping trolley, a wild-eyed woman stops suddenly to inspect the contents of an overturned wheelie bin. "What's with all these lemons?" she exclaims in an overly exaggerated Brooklyn accent, glaring accusingly at the huge pile of squeezed orange skins that are strewn across the road. Just managing to contain my laughter until we're out of earshot, I proceed to annoy Ant all evening (and for the rest of the holiday) with my new catchphrase.

Friday night. I'm standing outside the famous Mitchell's ice cream parlour, fortifying myself for an evening of partying ahead, and I start talking to this guy Ron - a friend of a friend of Philip and Tania. We cover the usual 'getting to know you' banter - where are you from? (San Francisco), what do you do for a living? (graphic designer), what else apart from ice cream is good in the neighbourhood? (parks, shopping, Margaritas). We're getting along famously, and I'm thinking he's probably the kind of guy who'd like the same sort of stuff as me, so I ask if he knows of any cool happenings in the city this weekend. He mentions a couple of exhibitions, then drops in casually "there's always the Masturbate-a-thon". I nearly choke on a piece of Oreo; half delighted, half appalled by the idea. Somebody else chips in, confirming the sordid truth: "yeah, it's a sponsored charity event - but you can pay fifteen dollars if you just want to watch." Only in San Francisco - or possibly Brighton - I think to myself . The conversation moves swiftly on, we finish our ice creams and head uptown.

Later that same night, after a cocktail of two at the Elbo Room, we’re standing on the mezzanine floor of the PWNDepot - a converted warehouse in the Mission - mingling with the San Francisco Geek Elite. This madcap place, advertised on AirBnB as ‘4600 Square Foot of Rad’, was where Ant stayed the night before I arrived, and we’re here on the invitation of its residents - his new found friends Brendan, Preston, Steve, Lisa, Laura, Michael, Bill, Jason, Sarah and Jed. Ant is being plied with some sort of stronger-than-you-think pink punch while I struggle not to gawp at the bare arse of the person wearing only a thong to my left. The conversation inevitably turns to our accents and I’m not sure how to react when one of the guys admits “I’d like to have a beer with him, but I want you to be my schoolteacher.”

It’s Saturday afternoon, the last full day of the holiday. The thin bedroom curtains are doing nothing to protect our jaded souls from the daylight and we are reduced to throwing t-shirts over our poor delicate eyes. The misery of the hangover is compounded by self-loathing and regret at the loss of the passing day and our pathetic inability to seize it. A voice inside of me keeps saying "if you get up and have breakfast, you'll feel better"; finally, I obey, shaking the lifeless body beside me until it also submits. We stumble out into the street in search of carbohydrates and undeserved redemption. Catching last orders at the Boogaloo cafe, our prayers are answered with a tear-jerkingly good 'morning after' breakfast that gradually begins to repair us.

Breakfast was amazing, but I am now stupidly full and in need of a lie down. Dolores Park is just around the corner, so we head over in the hope of finding a shady spot under a tree. I wonder if I am actually still at home in bed dreaming when we find ourselves plunged into the middle of a Mexican festival - Cinco de Mayo - complete with Mariachi band and Tequila-fuelled leathery old men doing Mexican dad-dancing (a lot like English dad-dancing, but with marching and saluting). Perhaps not top of most people's list of hangover-cures, this bizarre and unexpected cultural cocktail actually goes a long way to lifting our spirits, and it turns out that Mariachi bands are a lot more soothing than you might think - especially when accompanied by a copy of The Onion and a patch of soft cool grass.

By some miracle we are recovered enough to make it to our dinner booking - an end of holiday romantic meal at the famous Green's. The food is superb, but by the end I am flagging and in no fit state to negotiate public transport. Our taxi driver turns out to be the best local eccentric yet - an ageing hippy complete with white ponytail and tales of sixties counter culture rebellions. His anecdotes wash over me as I watch the city at night go by outside the window, thinking about all the things I never got to do here.

Just one last breakfast, better make it a good one: St Francis Fountain, a Nebulous Potato Thing, a Sherbert Shake and a handful of retro candy. The adventure is nearly over, but somehow it feels like only the first goodbye of a love affair that will last a lifetime. San Francisco, you stole my heart, and I will be back to claim it.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Windswept and Wild: Adventures in Marin County

Three intense and sweltering days (not to mention the accompanying crazy nights) in New York left me feeling frazzled to say the least, and ready for some chill out time in my next stop - the more temperate climate and rural terrain of Northern California. The no-frills flight across with American Airlines wasn't the most comfortable ever, but I did have the luxury of a companionable (and camp as chips) neighbour whose arch conversation and flamboyant anecdotes made the journey infinitely more bearable.

Ant met me at SFO airport in a fancy sports car - which he *apparently* bagged for peanuts in a special deal with the hire company - and we hit the road to Marin County. A brief stop for dinner in San Francisco gave us our first taste of the city's eclectic culinary offerings - with some surprisingly satisfying East German cuisine at the Mission District's Walzwerk restaurant.

Crossing the Golden Gate bridge after dark, we bombed up Route 101 into Marin, then off down a series of B roads to our destination, Point Reyes Station and Knob Hill Cottage. At the end of a pitch black country lane, we tiptoed down the path to our little cabin, to be welcomed by a giant moth and a note to say the door was open. Whether or not the two were connected, it was a brilliantly bizarre and somehow strangely comforting start to our stay. After all the hustle and bustle and constant traffic noises of The Big Apple, this remote sleepy place felt eerily quiet, and blissfully conducive to sleep.

The days that followed now merge in my memory as a dreamy montage of wild sandy beaches, soaring skyscapes and a staggering abundance of breath-taking flora and fauna - including wild irises, Black-Tailed Deer, Turkey Vultures, Pelicans, Egrets, Elephant Seals, huge ancient Redwood trees and a whole host of other un-identified natural-world showstoppers. We had hoped to catch sight of some migrating Gray Whales - which can sometimes be spotted from the Point Reyes lighthouse - but none appeared on the morning of our visit there, and being the windiest spot on the Pacific Coast, it was really just too blustery to hang about.


Apart from the magnificent wildlife and mind-blowing scenery, the other most notable thing about Marin and Sonoma was the cuisine. For a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, the (almost entirely local and organic) foodie possibilities of Point Reyes Station were impressive. We ate breakfast everyday in the local all-American cafe, the Pine Cone Diner, whose hearty pancakes and wholesome granola topped anything similar I've had here in Brighton.

Several interesting delis along the highstreet displayed a mouth-watering selection of colourful produce, and the marvellous Palace Market was perfect for picking up picnic supplies. The food at the Station House Cafe (the main restaurant in town) was less consistently inspiring, especially for vegetarians - although their salads were excellent. Beyond Point Reyes itself, the gastronomic delights of Marin and Sonoma continued to abound; even the seemingly hicksville roadside pitstops, such as the Dry Creek General Store, turned out to be veritable foodie havens.

Though we went to Marin armed with a guidebook and list of possible activities, in the end we just tended to roll from place to place, picking up recommendations from locals along the way, and stopping wherever fate took us. The windy coastal roads made for some interesting driving experiences, and a few missed signposts, but then, as Chet Baker once so elegantly suggested, getting lost is half the fun.

One sunny afternoon for example, we'd failed to notice the turning for Stinson Beach - where we'd hoped to find hot springs - and were contemplating where to go instead. Tangled Up in Blue was playing on the car stereo and I suddenly saw a sign for Dillon Beach. Despite the different spelling, it felt serendipitous enough for us to make a detour, and at the end of another long meandering road, we found ourselves on a windswept waterfront, utterly deserted apart from a gaggle of frisky seabirds. Huge tangled trunks of kelp and other curious seaweeds bestrewed the sparkling sandy beach, and the whole idyllic scene made us forget about the hot springs entirely.

Though perhaps a little more dramatic than the South Downs, I was amazed at how familiar much of the landscape in Marin and neighbouring Sonoma felt; the cliff-scape at Drake's Bay was strikingly similar to the Seven Sisters in Sussex, and many other parts of the coast could have been straight out of Pembrokeshire or the Gower peninsula in Wales. It was a welcome reminder to appreciate the scenic wonders that are on our own doorstep - though of course there can't be many places in the UK where you can see all of the aforementioned wildlife, hang out with eccentric arriviste hippes, have a sunny sandy beach all to yourself, stand in awe under a 300ft tree AND eat your own bodyweight in fine organic cuisine...can there?

We only had a few days in and around Marin before heading back into San Francisco - and I feel like our trip only scratched the surface of everything the area has to offer - but it was if nothing else a fabulous taster for future adventures. If you are planning a trip out that way yourself, you might like to check out this Google map of my recommended places - or if you have been before, please feel free to suggest highlights that we may have missed for next time. Because there will be a next time, of that I am certain.

Coming soon: Part three of my US adventures - San Francisco.