The Great Escape Festival @ Brighton, 14-16 May

They've said it's the UK's answer to SxSW, but is it any kop? We sent <b>Finbarr Bermingham</b> and <b>Alexis Somerville</b> to find out.

Feature by Alexis Somerville | 21 May 2009

The Great Escape: billed by organisers as “Europe’s leading festival for new music”. 300 bands, 34 venues, 3 days (well, it’s really nights – most venues don’t open ‘til 7pm). Sounds like hard work, doesn’t it? The Skinny, though, has long since thought nothing of slumming it up on the frontline of festivals and obliged as we are to bring the best in new music to the good folk of Scotland, we were rubbing our hands in glee when we caught a fishy whiff of this seaside bonanza.

Alas, any ambitions we might harboured about injecting our well-slapped cheeks with a much needed bit of colour were, sadly, misplaced, with swirling winds and driving rain providing the majority of the weekend’s weather. But having braved trench foot, ingrown toenails, telecommunication meltdowns and late-night vehicle breakdowns on festival duty in the past two years, we laugh in the face of a measly shower. Besides, there’s not a campsite in sight and we have the alien concept of a festival bed to look forward to…

Thursday – a gentle introduction:

Despite its self proclaimed status as the ultimate stage for up and coming acts, we find ourselves served with something of an indie-supergroup as a starter. Stephanie Dosen (whom you may recall from your sister’s Dawson’s Creek soundtrack album) and Bella Union owner / former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde are Snowbird. Dosen, decked out in angelic white, has a voice to match her appearance: crystalline and heavenly. Raymonde’s gentle key tinkling is subtle but effective. Combined, they sound like a more soothing Tori Amos. Cornflake girl, but with smoother edges. (FB)

The Handsome Family on the Mojo Stage are a less serene, but no less beguiling prospect. There’s a hint of Johnny Cash or The Silver Jews about their songs tonight, particularly with the booming delivery of Brett Sparks (whom we can only assume is the daddy) so prominent on the live stage. “You know what this is?” asks Rennie, the obvious June to his Johnny, as she lifts a harp-like device before Weightless Again, “Yeah that’s right, it’s a machine gun.” One of the weekend’s highlights. (FB)

With many of the revellers arriving late on Thursday, it’s very much a warm-up to the weekend ahead. It perhaps explains why hotly tipped The Acorn have attracted a crowd of little over fifty at the Pavilion Theatre. Duty bound to attend having heard them described as “2009’s Fleet Foxes”, The Skinny is quietly impressed, but also sure that we prefer last year’s model better. Anyway, we’re not sure the Fleet Foxes know how to plug in an electric guitar, let alone make a bit of a racket. (FB)


Connan Mockasin, at The Volks, resembles a particularly fragile Gus Van Sant character: complete with crimson cardigan, waif-like features and wispy blond hair. Words spoken into the microphone between songs give no indication of the oddity of his singing voice. He plays a seemingly helium-induced cover of The Teenagers’ Starlett Johansson (who are, incidentally, playing elsewhere at the festival at the same time). An eccentric pop elf, Mockasin is enjoyably upbeat and unusual. (AS)

His set blends seamlessly into Skinny favourite Liam Finn’s, with the pair easing the changeover by playing together briefly. A relatively successful exercise in harmonisation is surprising, given chalk and cheese combination of delicate wisp (Mockasin) and imposingly bearded (Finn). The talented son of Crowded House frontman Neil Finn makes his lyrically poignant and understated songs sound effortless. (AS)

We Were Promised Jetpacks have been making waves on the blogosphere and their show on the Drowned in Sound stage is, resultantly, a huge draw. They come over a little like Frightened Rabbit’s wee brothers: less neurotic and more likely to given themselves a hernia. Their set is impressive, if a little uncomfortable. Quiet Little Voices seems destined to become their signature tune and it’s delivered with due fervour and aplomb. (FB)

Quiet rumours have been circulating that Dark Horses at St George’s Church are not to be missed, despite being an unpleasantly cold walk from anywhere else. But their reason for being in a church becomes abundantly clear when Brighton/Stockholm favourite Lisa Lindley-Jones and band unveil their new guest vocalist, Emiliana Torrini. The pair’s harmonies hang in the air of the smoky, celestial setting like ghosts with stories still to tell. (AS)

There’s little ghostly, though, about Indian rockers Indigo Children. They take to the stage in unassuming, polite manner, and so it’s a little surprising when they start dishing out the Slash-sized riffs. The frontman’s voice grates slightly when compared with the slick licks, but my first exposure to Indian rock music is ultimately rewarding. (FB)

Wintersleep aren’t an innovative band by any stretch of the imagination, but the Nova Scotians have an infectious sound, built on dense, rhythmic post-rock structures. They start off loud, then go soft, then go fucking ballistic on an irresistible crescendo-led finale of Weighty Ghost. They may not have the emotive draw of compatriots Arcade Fire, or the devastating live show of Holy Fuck (who we unfortunately missed at TGE due to a scheduling error), but Wintersleep show that Canadians can do straight rock pretty well, too. (FB)

Speaking of Arcade Fire, Broken Records have been threatening to capitalise on that particular zeitgeist for what feels like years. Now signed to 4AD, their debut album is due in the next month, but whether they will ever be able to capture the energy of their live-shows on wax is questionable. After an initially indifferent reception from a tepid crowd in the Old Market (not The Skinny, of course), The Slow Parade, If You Don’t Like The News…, and new single Until The Earth Begins to Part see them exit stage left to rapturous applause. (FB)

If there is a polar opposite to Broken Records at TGE, it’s Polly Scattergood (apparently the Pet Shop Boys turned down a slot at Hector’s House). The lead singer, let’s call her Polly, prances around this spit n sawdust tavern as if it was a headline slot at G.A.Y., but they end up sounding like a lukewarm Moloko. The crowd have gathered for Crystal Antlers, and the half-hearted response is just about right, for what is a distinctly average performance. (FB)

The evening ends with a walk back into town to Sallis Benney Theatre – appropriately stuck onto the back of the University of Brighton’s art department - to see the always excellent FOUND. Regular Skinny readers won’t need any introduction to the art-pop collective, and their show is as idiosyncratic and technically impressive as ever. Incorporating an array of bespoke guitars, synths and melodica, their high energy set is unaffected by a diminutive crowd. The highlight of the set is the climactic When You Fall. Brighton doesn’t know what it’s missing. (AS)


Playing the Artrocker Matinee show at The Hope are the incongruously named Chapman Family, whose particularly hardcore brand of punk takes in dead babies, swearing angrily about technical hitches (all before lunch) but some delightfully watchable showmanship. Vocalist Kingsley Chapman wraps the microphone lead around his neck countless times, choking the words out of his throat. Their energy never dwindles as they convince the crowd that this is a dirty night out full of dark promise, not a sunny afternoon by the seaside.(AS)

In what must be the ultimate juxtaposition, Felix Fables’ singer Michael Baker manages to embarrass his mum in the sweetest way possible, pointing her out in the crowd as he acknowledges her influence on a song (about, um, rabbits). Their magical folk-pop fills the huge and bizarre medieval-themed King and Queen with mature tales of heartbreak, elegant optimism and naïve ballads. A Saturday afternoon soundtrack to rustic romance, complete with heavenly boy/girl vocals. (AS)

David Kitt unfortunately cried off this weekend with a throat problem, but his slot at the Music from Ireland Showcase is filled ably enough by Iain Archer, half of whose show we catch. A history of affiliation with Snow Patrol left me wary of Archer, but his acoustic set this afternoon is light, enjoyable and thankfully harmless. (FB)

The people behind the showcase are an independent, Irish version of The Scottish Arts Council, it was explained to the Skinny over a Guinness or two. To celebrate their appearance, they’ve even brought their own version of We Were Promised Jetpacks, in Angel Pier! They’re equal parts joviality and intensity with a lead singer boasting a hugely impressive vocal range. As with Jetpacks, there’s an ever-so-slight whiff of EMO, but they, too, seem to have enough substance in their armoury to get away with any perceived over-earnestness. (FB)

At Hove’s Old Market, the tiny early evening crowd welcomes Switzerland’s Sophie Hunger. With her strong vocals and natural and clearly at ease demeanour, she could well have been born with an acoustic guitar in hands, singing beautifully in both French and English. Possessing a quiet charisma, she entertains the small gathering with stories of naked septuagenarian artists. (AS)

Having seen their label’s head honcho play a set with Snowbird earlier in the weekend and been impressed with stablemates The Acorn, we make tracks to see Bella Union’s Ohbijou. Formerly a solo act, Casey Mecija now has the backing of violins, mandolins and cellos and more – forming an impressive seven-piece folk pop orchestra. Mecija’s songs weave tales of urban longing; of doomed love set against the backdrop of the big city. The audience may be sitting down, but they’re listening. (AS)

After being frustrated by an unexplained (and pretty substantial) delay at The Parlure, we had to give up on Deer Tracks and see A Sad Day for Puppets, a Swedish outfit who have digested the Twee for Dummies bible they evidently hand out in the schools of Stockholm, but seem to have cut a few corners on the way. They’ve got the blonde female – indie pop guitar dynamics bit, but with said female being completely drowned out by said guitars, it’s a shame they don’t know how to set up their equipment. (FB)

Joe Gideon and the Shark are an unlikely duo. Gideon isn’t an obvious frontman, with his plain outfit and unassuming demeanour. But by some voodoo he fills the role just fine; his words sharp and biting. His sister, The Shark, is oddly glamorous and eternally excited, backing him with her salient drumming skills. Unfortunately they’re forced to cut their set short due to technical difficulties, again highlighting the difficulty in such an event – timing is everything at Great Escape, one delay can throw your whole night into disarray. (AS)

VV Brown isn’t the obvious choice to precede Gang of Four, as though Mojo chose the line-up for their stage by picking names out of a hat. Prime Sunday supplement fodder of late, Brown outstrips expectations by actually being as good as they claim. Her voice is perfect for the music - vintage 1950s-style soul combined with sounds from some distant future. “Have you ever been in love?” she asks the crowd. They don’t seem too eager to share their pain. But VV’s been heartbroken plenty of times, and she’s not afraid to sing about it. (AS)

And so, much to the delight of the packed crowd, Gang of Four finally take the stage. Vocalist Jon King is nothing if not a showman, and one of the most sinister of his kind at that. He eyeballs the crowd, lurching his sweating body over the front row and diving around like a rabid wolf to the tune of the band’s visceral post-punk. The audience hopes for a heaving moshpit, a post-apocalyptic atmosphere and the destruction of a microwave with a baseball bat. Gang of Four don’t disappoint. (AS)

Unfortunately, things are a little less dramatic at the Prince Albert. Canadian folkies Woodpigeon (former Edinburgh residents) have written some of the most exquisite songs of the last few years. In the live arena, they can be entertaining, affecting and unmissable. Not tonight, though. After grappling with technical difficulties, the band’s performance is decidedly flat. Lead singer Mark Hamilton is visibly disheartened and the crowd are unimpressed. (FB)

It’s an indifferent end to an indifferent weekend. The Great Escape is, on paper, a fine idea. In practice though, it falls down in a number of key areas which need to be addressed before it can be even considered as the UK’s answer to SxSW. As mentioned previously, most of the venues don’t open until after seven and the bands, mostly, end between eleven and twelve, leaving festival-goers four hours to catch a night’s worth of music. Much of the weekend is spent in an uncomfortable rush – constantly checking your watch for fear of missing a timetabled band.

It almost makes us yearn for muddy wellies of yore…