The Great Escape 2008
Various venues, Brighton. 15-17 May 2008
The Great Escape takes one city, throws hundreds of new bands into dozens of venues, adds thousands of punters and conjures millions of magical moments, all in three hazy days. On arrival in Brighton, a stroll down the beach seems the natural choice, so it’s off to Concorde2 with high hopes and a metaphorical bucket and spade.
Fryars are first on; they have a capital letter in the middle of their name so must be either annoyingly pretentious or some cutting new electro act. Ah, it’s both, but there's enough Talking Heads vagueness in singer Ben Garret’s curt brogue to engage the kids as the fuzzy gloom of ‘The Ides’ booms around. School Of Language wander onstage next, telling the swelling crowd: “Thanks for coming, even though you’re only here for Vampire Weekend.” They may have a point, but as they struggle through the mediocrity of ‘Rockist’, the audience can be forgiven for not showering them with adulation. This is the current plaything of Field Music’s David Brewis, and reeks of side project cosseting. The drummer looks like he’s been in about 17 bands, waiting for a break that isn’t likely to materialise.
Vampire Weekend’s break may have arrived prematurely, but their unadulterated brand of kitsch pop impishness is far too genial to dislike. Sadly, most Escapees miss the show, as the first instance of queuing difficulties surface. As the Ivy League quartet begin with a looping rendition of ‘Mansard Roof’, scores of fans wait in vain outside. Nevertheless, those within are treated to a refreshingly tight as well as suitably enthusiastic set. ‘Campus’, an idyllic ode to adolescent apathy, is ready-made for festival frivolities, with The Kooks’ amongst those moved to move by its sheer catchiness. Luke Pritchard’s questionable dancing is again witnessed as ‘A-Punk’ provokes revellers to climb poles and generally run amok. Before closer ‘Oxford Comma’ combines grammar and giddiness, singer Ezra Koenig proclaims Brighton as his favourite place. Right now it’s easy to agree.
The real masterstroke of this event is its spontaneity. Somewhere, deep inside Great Escape HQ, an omnipotent being armed with only a headset and a contract phone frequently beams titbits of gigging gold out to eager recipients. In text message form. The simple idea of letting people know an obscure Icelandic bassoon player is about to play on the carousel ensures the day can be as exhilarating as the more rigorously organised evening. It is this service that leads to a capacity crowd filling Audio at 3pm, to see the elfin charm of French singer Soko. The quirky soloist strums her ukulele and spouts stories of peanut butter and other childish delights. ‘I Wanna Look Like A Tiger’, complete with elaborately appropriate headwear, continues the loveably novel atmosphere, before she shows depth with a piercingly fragile version of ‘I Will Never Love You.’ SoKo is the find of the festival, popping up everywhere, leaving fresh devotees in her wake.
Earlier, Vinny Vinny played a midday set at Barfly showcasing their Sixties style, a foot-stomping melding of Motown with mod that references The Temptations as much as The Who. It’s all a tad too retro to be successful, but bracingly agreeable nonetheless. Another daytime session continues on Virtual Festivals’ very own stage on the pier. My Federation have borrowed Kasabian’s swagger and riffs, but are just a few years too late to make any real impact. Still, there’s an amusements arcade next door – you can’t play Air Hockey at Reading can you.
With over 200 bands playing, clashes are as inevitable as they are frustrating. Eventually Crystal Castles get the nod and the sweaty confines of Digital become base for Friday night. After a bitterly underwhelming performance from George Pringle, the headliners crash onto the tiny stage in an incursion of colour and intent. Incessant, loud and contagiously energetic, the duo rage into the pulsating blur of ‘Crimewave’. It’s intentionally unsubtle and structurally questionable, but their allure is insatiable. Front-woman Alice Glass is relentlessly suspended in transition between stage and crowd, much to the security team’s displeasure and the audience’s joy. She’s a buzzing ball of alacrity, never still and never clear. Crystal Castles set whizzes past, completely unoriginal but enthralling regardless. Speaking of fun but derivative bands, The Wombats then arrive on the decks to entertain the throngs of hyper revellers.
After the carousing of the night before, sanctuary comes the next afternoon in the form of three sultry tunes from Ida Maria, strumming atop the balcony of the Theatre Royal. The Norweigan songstress stops pedestrian traffic with a racy acoustic run through ‘Better When You’re Naked’; her set is gloriously casual and far too short. Then, inexplicably, a string ensemble starts playing in the street. A cup of coffee and shot of Mozart and we’re back in business.
Lightspeed Champion plays three shows on Saturday, so catching him early may have been a misjudgement. A far cry from his imaginative, melodious album, his Old Market gig is a disaster. Playing solo, his electric guitar is abrasive and sketchy, burying his strengths of twisted lyricism and dazzling harmonies. Appearing uncomfortable throughout, he races through the likes of ‘Midnight Surprise’ and ‘Dry Lips’ without pausing between songs. The only respite for the perturbed crowd is a few licks of Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly.’ At his later Barfly set, he apologises for this earlier performance. It was different, but ultimately plain shabby.
Over at the sumptuous setting of the Sally Bennis Theatre, Noah and the Whale play the gig of their lives. With a sympathetic audience, the seven-piece soothe with ‘Shape Of My Heart’ and thrill with the folk jiggery of ‘Mary’. It’s vulnerable but intense, the group dynamic cultivating a full, organic sound bereft of pretence and glimmering with emotion. The reasons for the affecting nature of the performance become clear as they announce the departure of Laura Marling from the band, now that she's established as a solo artist in her own right. As peculiar as it is warming, it’s a fitting send off.
When Marling returns, this time solo and centre-stage, it is clear her talent is thriving on its own. ‘Shine’ is a display of vocal range, while ‘Ghosts’ is almost painfully quaint. She is soon joined by her band, who add a more up-tempo drive to ‘Cross Your Fingers’ and a jubilant interpretation of ‘You’re No God.’ She is reluctant in the face of worshipping fans, her doe-eyed shyness appearing in every fiddle with her sleeves. Yet, mid-song, she’s assured, confidently aware of her ability. Every song is lapped up, before a sing-along encore of ‘Alas, I Cannot Swim’ cheerfully signals the end of another triumphant Great Escape.
The sheer volume of bands makes catching somebody startling a certainty, while Brighton’s festival feel gives the event an individual air of excitement. There is the possibility of spending large chunks of time standing in queues, unless you have a far more expensive delegate pass. Still, it’s all the positives of festivals, with fewer irritations. What better way to escape.