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Day One: Thursday
Words & Pictures by Ben GC
Falling unusually on the week of the first May bank holiday, there was almost an unexpected start to the Great Escape Festival this year. Maybe a combination of the appalling lack of summer, combined with the slightly-still-there, bank-holiday hangover, and the fact we’d only had 2 days to do any work that week, but I for one was suddenly in a rush to go and get 2012’s Great Escape experience under way for y’all!
So what does the Great Escape Festival offer up to the man on the street. Well, firstly, it’s not as straight-forward as ‘the man on the street’ because this multi-venue, somewhat-confusing-on-occasion festival is quite definitely for two parts of the music world – those that are IN IT and those that just LIKE IT. It showcases not only the most hotly-tipped yet barely heard of acts (also known as new music) but also has a huge convention/talks/panel things/industry chit-chat/yada yada side to it which is attended by an international who’s who of the music industry. It’s a funny old thing the Great Escape, I’ve always had the privilege of having either a delegate pass or a press pass to cover the event each year, so whilst I am mainly speculating on the experience of the non-delegate paying punter it is fairly obvious what the differences are. The first difference is right here, day one, it’s Thursday and tomorrow is Friday still, both of them bonafide school days, and the heart of this festival is a mass of industry people – agents, labels, producers, bookers, loads of journalists, photographers, media and TV people and of course the small army of musicians and singers themselves. All 3 days of the festival are ‘work days’ for these delegates... well, if hob-knobbing, nursing hangovers whilst trying to remember people’s names and swopping an Amazonian amount of business cards around this little seaside city is your idea of work. But in fairness to the delegate army, and indeed the bands and the organisation itself, this is what it’s all about – for whilst the Great Escape does offer up the chance for us ‘normal folk’ to potentially see a future headliner play a set to 30 people in a dark room as an unheard-of, it is of course its presentation in front of these importantees which gets them that very future.
As ever, I treated this assignment in my usual way with my averagely-informed music hat on but as a keen observer of people. The Great Escape is more-often-than-not a lottery as far as seeing live music is concerned, there’s only so much you can take from an, on occasion, all-bases-covered programme description (for some poor sods the description simply hadn’t been researched enough, they were keen to inform us that they weren’t the “heavy-metal group with the same name from South Yorkshire as the programme says”). So I did, as I have done on many previous years, firstly highlight a couple that genuinely sounded good or had thorough recommendations, moved on to ones which would be easiest for me to get to in my wanderings through the streets of Brighton and thirdly, and most importantly, the ones with the names I liked best. ‘We Were Promised Jetpacks’ were circled without hesitation.
I’d decided to give each of the three days of festival a single venue to focus my energies on, Thursday would be Coalition – the large club venue, holding a fair few hundred people, this was a suitable entree to the weekend. Nonetheless I would of course not be able to stop myself from checking out as much other stuff as I could at other venues, like my first band for this year’s event, I Chung, at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, who set things off for me with a solid performance in the reasonably packed basement venue for the early evening shot. I was reminded of the Thursday vibe – the sober restraint of the crowd, scared of starting too hard wary of the early morning convention meetings for the industry heads or maybe a normal Friday in the office for the Brighton crowd.
I Chung at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar
I shuffled off before I Chung had finished and managed to catch the end of The Skints at Coalition. Both bands had been playing the same time slot but as an experienced Great Escaper 2-4-1 is well within my skill-set. So I bedded in for what I had deemed (and I presume the programmers had) to be an evening of black music. The Skints were a well-honed Reggae/Ska outfit who did nothing wrong, but frankly as a Brightonian, you’ve seen enough of this stuff to need something quite special to give you that stand-out moment. It was each of the next two acts that I was excited about.
Spoek Mathambo, who I’d heard nothing of until just recently did not disappoint. I was surprised to see a band that looked like indie-personified setting up as I was definitely expecting huge afro sounds and a large dose of rap, but low and behold South African Spoek, got on stage with more charisma than you could possibly hope for. His confidence, talent and cheeky speakings were the kick-start to get this festival going for me. Using a second mic with more reverb than you would imagine possible, Spoek created his own backing vocals, effects and harmonics with devastating effect. The set did tail off with afrobeats being swopped for more mainstream indie sounds but a few hundred people witnessed a future guy that day.
Spoek Mathambo at Coalition
I can’t really fault Coalition as a gig venue, its cavernous layout gives it a classic feel (I think some artists struggle with the acoustics but hey, that’s their problem). But annoyingly for 2012 there was no photography pit, which meant that for me to get the photos of the next band that I wanted from the front I’d have to stay there from the end of Mr Mathambo’s show otherwise I’d stand no chance of getting close. Shame, it meant I had to stand there and drink beer. Big shame. Whilst I was stood there, a man whom I had never met before, started preaching to me about the joys of the next band on stage – Shabazz Palaces - his excitement was infectious and this is what The Great Escape is all about, those rumblings and rumour, the expectations and the possibilities. Great Escape bookings come from all over the world – the best of the unheard of – this is real cherry-picking of the unknown. So when you get a hip hop act from America live on stage you have no idea of their standing in that country or what the buzz is somewhere else. I for one was excited. They came and they presented us with a vision of Hip Hop quite unlike anything that had come before. Live modulation of the vocals, an array of percussive sounds all played live, MPCs, keyboards, synchronised dance moves that somehow remained cool and all performed live by just two guys – sounding like Kanye on Helium... and Acid. This was so ‘out there’ that half the crowd just weren’t quite ready and were probably even a little confused, but I was simply blown away. On average I go to about 30 or 40 gigs at the Great Escape and it’s not often something is as remarkably different as Shabazz Palaces were. It made you ask questions of it and be compelled to see what would happen next and where it would go to from there.
Shabazz Palaces at Coalition
To break up the night, I went off and did some wandering around – it is the Great escape after all and seeing the millions of lanyard wearing non-Brightonian delegates walking around trying to figure out where some tiny-arse little venue which is about to bear witness to the future of New York post punk avant-garde pop is, always brings a wry smile to my face. Of particular interest to a people watcher like myself is the crossroads outside the Mash Tun (which is the official green room/home of the delegates when they are in town). Between the outside areas of the Mash Tun, Fitzherberts and the Waggon and Horses most of the wandering Escapees are happily knocking back drinks, talking shop (shit), checking out their next moves on the programme timetable or simply having a break from music. I caught up with various people that I recognised from down here or out of towners who I have met over the years at the festival – normally you shout the first name that you most likely think is theirs and then some other person you can’t really remember corrects you and so on. The music industry. It’s fun.
Whilst out and about I also caught the never more appropriately named ‘Bass Drum Of Death’. I don’t need to tell you what kind of music this was, that is very apparent. I can’t tell you if it was good – I can tell you it was loud and people stayed there and that is despite it being about 100 degrees in The Hope at all times when Rock is on. So there you have it.
Bass Drum Of Death at The Hope
A quick shimmy back towards Coalition and I couldn’t help but poke my nose into Sticky Mike’s again to check on a couple of bands. The first was Zulu Winter. This was one of those band names that I just liked the sound of, but it turned out they were not only very good at doing the whole playing music thing but also wore fantastic shirts. A real bonus. The second were White Arrows who were from the US of A and again had really good shirts and jackets. Their stand out quality was having Marty McFly’s double as the singer. Same voice even. Neat.
Zulu Winter at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar
White Arrows at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar
Concluding things at Coalition were firstly Mikill Pane in the late evening which was a good old-fashioned hands up Hip-Hop affair with several MCs throwing it down in a UK style including Mikill himself in a basketball-playing tattooed street-but-Intellectual poet kind of stylee. Shortly followed by Riz MC, who became one of the talking points of the festival (there’s always a couple).
Mikill Pane at Coalition
Riz’s late night Coalition set was an interesting one. I was intrigued as I’d heard good things about the Four Lions actor actually being a ‘real MC’ and whilst I was starting to flag (a 1.30am start seems a bit later than in previous years), I was certainly brought back to life when his set didn’t so much ‘start’ as more ‘became apparent’ as he suddenly started MCing over the drum and bass which had been assumed to be the inbetween sets music. It’s true, he really can MC and that’s what he did, literally, non-stop for about 3 or 4 tunes – almost as a justification to the doubters, before moving into his own tracks, rapping over backing tracks played by his DJ. Unfortunately, whilst it might have been deemed a prime time set or a headline even, for the first day of the festival, the reality is that at that time with an important Friday at the convention looming, the industry people were simply not there – what you were left with was just a rabble of slightly drunk (definitely too drunk for Riz’s intellectual anti-assumption, political accappelas which went right over their heads) festival-goers and a couple of tired-looking management people. A good show, done well, but probably not the opportunity to express his up-and-coming-ness that the artist had hoped for. But his time to shine was still to come...
Riz MC at Coalition
With that, I made my way to the delegate basecamp as ever, The Queen’s Hotel, for the usual 3am round(s) of drinks and music industry observations that amuse me so after a night of Great Escaping. It is not unheard of for me to make up industry positions that I hold at this time and see how far my lies can get me. On this particular night I managed to get someone from a popular Brighton record Label, an ITV lawyer and a guy who is in an actual band to all join me in the fictitious band which I was drummer of in a bid to work the room and get signed. We never did get that deal. Not that night.
To see all of my photos from Thursday click HERE
Date: Tuesday 22nd May 2012