Three days of music in the halls and clubs and pubs and nooks and crannies of Brighton. Hundreds upon hundreds of bands. Good, enthusiastic crowds. A well attended industry convention in parallel...
Downloading seems just as far from 'killing music' as home taping was in the seventies. Just as Edinburgh in August can only give you confidence in the energy, creativity and commitment of young people determined to make drama, there's much to savour in the Great Escape's showcase for new music. Of course the quality can be variable, and of course a lot of the participants are never going to make a paying career out of what they're doing. But sitting here on the morning after, with tired feet and faintly buzzing ears, it seems time well spent and worthy of celebration.
I managed to catch sets or songs from 21 acts, barely scratching the surface of all that was on offer but taking in a range from hip hop to folk and krautrock to avant-garde jazz. And acts from Finland, France, South Africa, Denmark, Sweden, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Oh, and the UK.
Let's start with some bands I already knew.
Things ended on a high last night with a quirky, energetic set from Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny at the Pavilion. I saw her a couple of years ago, supporting Stornoway, and she's really come on well. I've got her recent album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose and the songs translated well to live performance. Only niggle was the sound - from the side of the room I couldn't make out any of the talk from Beth or the band and some of the subtler violin and trumpet textures didn't really come through.
After Jonquil's set at the Prince Albert on Thursday I've gone back to their recent album, Point Of Go, which had initially disappointed me. They are great musicians: stuttering, highlife-inflected guitar; a bit of an afropop flavour in the drummer's oblique fills too; a strong, melodic bass player doubling on trumpet; keyboards; and a second trumpet cum electronics and percussion. I'm less sure of the vocals - a lush, almost New Romantic, style, overfond of falsetto... But when they're playing live you're caught up in the energy and melody of the music. There was a lot of dancing and a very warm reception that they fully deserved. And now I'm hearing those strengths more in the record - and managing to ignore some dodgy lyrics.
Otherwise, a few headline disappointments. I made no revelatory new discoveries - people I'd never heard of that I'm going to rush out and buy albums by and hunt out their next live moves. I was underwhelmed by Shabazz Palaces - billed as a 'hip hop collective', they turned out to be two rappers with a laptop and some percussion (by that token I guess Simon and Garfunkel were a 'folk collective'). Their words were almost completely inaudible: slickly done but unengaging. And I missed out on the Alabama Shakes, when they cut off the queue about 15 people in front of me...
Overall judgment from three days: there is generally more interest and distinctiveness in the playing than in the singing and the singing is usually far better than the quality of the songwriting. Too many lyrics are hackneyed, clumsy, over-earnest or perm some combination of those three.
It's unfair to single them out, but I had to squeeze my way out of a packed Avalanche City set when this musically talented NZ trio - nice fiddle, excellent harmonies - followed up a dull seaside vignette ('hope filled my sails'), with a frankly implausible recollection of leaving city life behind ('we threw our cellphones out of the window") and then left their frontman alone to intone a ponderous ode with a frequently repeated chorus (in full: 'You're beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.') which his beloved may have appreciated, but I afraid I didn't. I'm obviously in a minority, because they were going down a storm, but there you go. Or there I went.
Straight into a set from Swedish duo Friska Viljor which really cheered me up. Apparently, they vowed when they started never to write a song when they were sober. The regime seems to be working: lots of original (and sometimes off the wall) subject matter delivered with energy and humour. ('We don't always play like this. Sometimes we play with a band. Then we sound different. That's all I want to say.') They have an attack which suggests familiarity with louder instruments and the harmony choruses lurch engagingly into a dodgy falsetto roar, suggestive of a youth spent listening to Led Zeppelin. And their lyrics put a lot of native English speakers at the festival to shame - 'Tell me what I've done to make you sad/Forgotten your birthday again?/I'm not myself when I am drunk...' I'd like to see them again.
A few awards to close:
- best of the rest - probably Francois and The Atlas Mountains, a mainly French band featuring electronica and washes from two keyboards, with live percussion and guitar. A layered sound with space and subtlety, working up a real lift and energy. Their last number was almost house - a Balearic beat with dub-like echoey interludes. They were having fun, unfazed by their sampler packing up - distinctive and interesting.
- favourite musician - I haven't been able to track down his name, but the drummer in Furguson (a five-piece from Catalunya) was astonishing. I went to see them on the strength of their blurb in the brochure including a reference to krautrock and there are certainly elements of Neu's Klaus Dinger and Can's Jaki Leibezeit in his approach. But he can maintain that sort of motorik style at incredible speed and then mix in more polyrhythmic stuff. He seemed reluctant to pause and led the band straight from one number into the next - except once stopping to down virtually a whole bottle of water. He locked into a groove with an essentially chord-playing guitarist and there were also a couple of squelching keyboards and bass, but he was the mesmerising heart of the music. You'd fear for his health in a longer set.
- best cover version - Australian singer-songwriter Ben Salter redeemed a set of rather worthy and ponderous compositions with a brilliant 'Tracks Of My Tears', which showed the strength and subtlety of his voice and his effective, understated guitar style to rather better effect.