Ah, Brighton. The Austin of the English south coast and the location for a three-day event where industry and punters jostle for wristband recognition. The Great Escape may now fairly be billed as Europes leading festival for new music but there aint no Auditorium Shores Stage here and comparisons with SXSW are in truth a bit disingenuous. So forgive the Austin bit. Brighton is much cooler (as in temperature) and presents nothing like the scale of the Texas event. Lets talk about Brighton itself. Its about 50 or so miles south of London, between the scenic South Downs and the sea and with a long promenade, two piers (one sadly a burned out wreck), and the kind of stony beach you damage your feet on.
For an English seaside resort, though, Brighton is a surprisingly hip place. There is a vibrancy and creativity about the town, which comes in part from it being something of a centre for arts and culture. Its especially cosmopolitan, seemingly packed with foreign language students on every corner and boasting a large gay and lesbian community. The residents have just voted in the countrys first Green MP. Its diverse and rich in both heritage, especially with its marvelous Regency buildings, and quirkiness, as evidenced by the maze of independent antique, fashion and jewelery shops, and collective new ageism, known as The Lanes.
All in all, Brighton is a pretty good place to stick your pin if you started out with a map of Britain and the words music festival scrawled on a pad. Now in its fifth year, The Great Escape has chosen the historic Brighton Dome as its hub. Built for the then Prince of Wales and completed in 1805, the Dome houses the Concert Hall, Corn Exchange and the Pavilion Theatre, all within the grand Pavilion Estate. Its an apt choice for a base because its so central and already hosts live music, dance, theatre, comedy and all manner of events all year round. For three days in May, the music biz takes over and this is where you register and find most of the networking opportunities, conventions and seminars.
The Great Escape wears two hats. Firstly it is a convention for the great and good of the UK music industry, with more than a smattering of representation from Europe, America, The Far East and Australia. Secondly as a place for music fans to catch mostly new bands with some breakthrough and a few established acts. It boasts over 300 bands in 30 venues over 3 days. Delegate fees range from £80 for very early bookings through to £200 closer to the date. That gets you into all the networking and convention events plus priority entry to all the gigs. For the punter, tickets are a steal, costing from £35 to £55, a fraction of the price of the big name festivals. For that you get to go to as many gigs in 3 days as the laws of physics will allow.
There is an important rider to all that: subject to the venues capacity. And therein lies a tale we will unfold shortly. It is both a blessing and a burden that the vast majority of gig venues at TGE are very small and generally rammed. Thats if you can get close to the actual door. But lets rewind a bit first. This article has 24 hours in the title and that needs a brief explanation. Of course, I had planned to get down to Brighton early Thursday morning but the day job held me back til late afternoon. I already had commitments that prevented me staying on beyond Friday evening. The journey down was fine but after finding the hotel, a pleasantly quirky and comfy townhouse aptly called Snooze, there was the diversion of walking back into central Brighton to register at the Dome and get that all-important priority wristband. That bit also went pretty smoothly, although the disturbingly elongated mug shot produced on my pass made me look like an extra from Dawn of the Dead. It didnt do much for the girls, either.
Another brisk walk down to the seafront found me at the second intended stop of my meticulously worked out schedule, the Queens Hotel. I say second because the first was going to be Jam to catch Aussie indie-popsters, Hungry Kids of Hungary, not least because of their absurdly silly name, followed by Scots next best new thing, Pearl and The Puppets . No, thats not a very clever name either and not to be confused with Pearl of the Muppets. Sadly without the benefit of time travel, neither band was a reality for me, so I cut my losses and headed for the Queens, pausing for a brief moment to contemplate Digital, across the road where edgy popette Daisy Dares You was playing. I was keen to know where she gets her eye shadow.
So to the Queens where I met up at last with two fellow Escapers. Its an imposing white washed traditional seafront hotel with a surprisingly light and airy room downstairs, where the audience could gather along two sides of a corner stage. It was clean, carpeted and had a civilized bar. Surely not a rock venue? The entire line-up of Gabby Young & Other Animals might have struggled to fit on this stage as there are eight of them, so the upcoming flame-haired songstress was accompanied by just one Other Animal, singer-guitarist Stephen Ellis, who also doubles as the front man with label defying London band, Revere. Gabby Young enchanted a decent-sized crowd with acoustic renditions of songs mainly from her acclaimed latest album, Were All In This Together. It was an intimate set that grew stronger towards the climax and showcased Youngs wonderful vocal range and writing skills that mark her above most of her over-hyped female contemporaries. The full band will be playing a stack of UK festivals over the summer, including Glastonbury, and will surely garner a new army of fans all the way.
With an eye on the clock and a gig list already littered with smudged circles and question marks, we hung around at the Queens for Dan Smiths set. On first hearing, Smith comes across as accomplished and pleasant. His songs have substance and can pack a nice turn of phrase. There are strong hints of Regina Spektor in there, mixed with a dash of British folk and percussive beats. Maybe Smith suffered from playing in a hotel room, though as the music tended to drift a little into aural wallpaper. But then again that could be unfamiliarity on this listeners part.
It was maybe getting a bit too cozy at the Queens so next stop was a reasonably short diagonal hop to a small nightclub venue, even closer to the seawater, affectedly called Life. The hop was bracing; for that, read bloody cold, and how far away is Austin. Life had a more standard rock venue feel, though if you want good acoustics, bare brick isnt the greatest option. It was busy, though not rammed, and only moderately sweaty. We were hear to see Best Coast , the lo-fi Californians behind that inescapably brilliant single, When Im With You and a host of top tunes which threaten to form a seriously good debut album. Id come to love Best Coast, and pretty much loved them by the end but had some doubts along the way.
The trio is fronted by singer-guitarist Bethany Cosentino, (ex-Pocahaunted) and features Bobb Bruno on bass and guitar, plus a seemingly unbilled drummer. Their recorded stuff led me to expect more light and shade but here they were over-grungy, OD-ing on reverb. Cosentinos vocal had its off-key moments during the opening numbers and the often deft bursts of lead were a bit lost in the mix. The room is shaped like a tunnel and at times it felt like you were watching a band in a wind tunnel, without the wind. The sound was bouncing off the hard surfaces and creating a general muddiness. Four songs in though and the sound guy seemed to find a better balance and things improved from there.
The band breezed through a dozen tunes with stand-outs being the dreamy Sun Was High (So Was I), a bitter-sweet Wish He Was You and naturally When Im With You in which Cosentino really found her vocal range even if drowned by sound towards the end. Best Coast has a whole lot going for them and their songs are catchy enough to grab some limelight. They also have the divine Ms. Cosentino who would be an asset to a great many bands.
We were beginning to feel at home in Brighton and ready to continue rocking intro the night, so it was a bit off that the venue staff summarily chucked everyone out while Best Coast were still packing gear away, so they could turn Life back into a nightclub (yawn). Hopefully only two people showed up later. A quick glance at the gig list told me it was time to head north towards a large traditional looking pub called Hectors House. This was more than a brisk walk but we still seemed in good time to catch The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster , an admirably named combo if I ever heard one.
Unfortunately those smart priority wristbands and horror movie lanyard badges were of no use when you arrive to see forty or so people queuing outside already bulging doors. That rider, subject to the venues capacity hits home for the first time tonight. Despite a hiatus in recent years, these local psycho-rockers obviously have a strong following and a great reputation as a live act. The band have a new album Blood and Fire out now and were featuring much of that material in their set. The odd glimpse through the window confirmed that front man, Guy McKnight, was giving it all he got. It was a frustrating experience. Sure we could listen to the band outside but a combination of an immovable queue and the night temperature eventually made us seek a final musical fix or two elsewhere.
Pouring over the programme once more, The Slits at the Pavilion Theatre (hurrah, a larger venue) looked promising but then we ran into someone whod given up trying to get in to see The Invisible at the same venue. Still it was worth a try but, yes, the queue was in no-hope territory. Shame, as the reformed girl punks would have been interesting 30 years on from when the original trio appeared on their album cover, dressed largely in mud, even if the divine Viv Albertine is missing from the expanded line up.
Although TGE mostly champions new music, arguably the biggest established band on the bill today was The Cribs . Now joined by ex-Smith legend, Johnny Marr, on guitar, and offering a set of classic tunes, The Cribs were headlining at The Corn Exchange with support from promising ex-Cajun Dance Party people, Yuck , and the much-vaunted Florida four-piece, Surfer Blood . The Cribs were bound to be a popular act in a restricted space so you have a much better chance of seeing them at either Glastonbury or Lollapalooza this summer, than in the Brighton crush. Again this was a show that you had to decide was going to be your entertainment for the evening and just go for it. Late comers were always going to struggle.
By now there was very little on apart from DJ sets. For the past three and a half hours, a large number of bands had been shoe-horned into 24 competing venues and most had little room at the inn. A tad frustrated and tired by the fruitless walking between queues, we retired to a quiet drink at a seafront hotel and contemplated the day ahead. Aware that my 24 hours were due to expire early Friday evening, a lot needed to be fitted in. As a delegate, daytime is dominated by the conventions and networking sessions with just a few live bands on at seven venues plus the odd impromptu seafront outdoor set.
Resolving to focus on the industry side of the event for the morning, I check the schedule again. Once more choices are necessary as there are competing events at the Dome and Pavilion Theatre and nothing is underway till 10.30 a.m.. Delegates obviously need time to recover from not seeing bands the night before. I decide to focus on the Founders Room in the Dome and the adjacent networking areas. First up is a discussion about synch deals with input from specialists from both sides of the Atlantic, followed by a session on collaboration between the music industry and government. Both had their points of interest but I broke off the latter to observe a speed networking session on the mezzanine floor above. This seemed to deliver immediate results as music managers made contacts with a clutch of movers and shakers from the Americas, Europe and the Far East. This kind of session epitomized the more practical side of conventions at TGE. Rather than talking about the business, you were there doing the business.
I had also marked down the lunchtime session at the Pavilion on music and brands, being an area of particular interest to me, but the lure of live music won out, so it was off to see General Fiasco, a Northern Irish three-piece, playing at another of the pub venues, the Prince Albert. This was a haul up a long hill towards the railway station. The name of the band should have been a warning. Described as offering loud melodic guitars and thumping drumbeats, thats pretty much all we heard through the open upstairs window. The venue was again full to the rafters with a queue snaking out of the doors, consisting of people who were there to see the next act. Many were unaware that the billed artiste, Villagers, had called in sick to be replaced by fellow Irishman, Fionn Regan. Others, in the know, were there to see Regan and the Fiasco crowd werent going anywhere in the main.
Losses were again cut and it was back to the Dome to catch the tail end of a networking event hosted by the Music Manager Forum, an organisation which is highly recommended to anyone in the UK music management community, and is especially supportive of those starting out. Theres an international version here too. Two more activities followed. The Flys Niall Doherty was in conversation with Nick Littlemore, Pnau frontman and one half of Empire of the Sun . The Aussie was a bit less than forthcoming in that oblique rock star manner and the audience seemed to be nodding off. The final one was more engaging as a clutch of workers at the digital coalface artistes, marketing and management – explored ways of selling your music independently and how to engage and develop a fan base. This was highly useful stuff for any aspiring artiste or manager.
The 24 hours were nearly up and there was no live music billed till after Cinderella hour. I decided to take my chance and stroll around town and along the front, looking for impromptu live stuff. Other than the odd busker, nothing. As a final irony, having collected the car from the other end of town, who should we spot on our way out than north east Englands finest rock band, The Futureheads , playing a surprise Levis gig by the sea in the early evening sun. They were all in black, of course.