So, here we are again, tramping the streets of Brighton, squeezing into some unfeasibly small spaces to see bands we've never heard of...
I'd been feeling somewhat underexcited by this year's Great Escape because it the only one of hundreds of names on the bill that I knew I liked was Billy Bragg, who appears at the Dome tonight. But a quick burst of venue-hopping last night – bookended by engaging performances by two chalk-and-cheese-different Canadian 23 year olds – restored my faith and energy levels.
Coincidentally, I'd been to see Lucinda Williams the night before and was left underwhelmed. The voice was there and some classic songs, like 'Jackson' and 'Car Wheels On A Gravel Road'. But she didn't seem fully engaged: spending a lot of time fiddling with her guitar and consulting a roadie, and relying heavily on a big binder on a lectern for the lyrics. Guitarist Doug Pettibone was fine on the textures and crunch but, to my ear, didn't add much melodically. Even from our front row seats, what was billed as 'An Intimate Evening With Lucinda Williams' ended up being more of a low-key one.
Quite a contrast to see Mo Kenney the next day. I knew nothing about this young Nova Scotian on her first trip to the UK other than that she was a singer-songwriter. She took the stage with an acoustic guitar and sang a couple of songs clearly and pleasantly to a neatly finger-picked accompaniment. Just as a 'so what?' was forming in my mind she strapped on a Les Paul and introduced Emergency, a clearly older bassist and drummer who were 'jetlagged as fuck' having flown in that morning. The rest of the set was on another level, building to a brave and excellent take on David Bowie's 'Five Years'. It transpired that Kenney has been recording with big-in-his-native-Canada Joel Plaskett and Emergency are his band. Mo deserves that sort of attention and leg-up: she has a focus and clarity about what she does, with a spare, unpretentious, line in lyrics ('your eyes are like a big black hole / the more I look the less I know'); and an engaging dry sense of humour – noting that Brighton 'is like California...only cooler'.
I had been more taken by the programme's write-up of the act that followed Kenney – Norwegian chanteuse Jenny Hval. Unfortunately, I didn't really take to her: self-consciously arty, shying away from anything that might be mistaken for a groove, her voice not really strong or distinctive enough to get away with the arch phrasing and sudden shrieks. She knows how to write an arresting line – 'last night I watched people fucking on my computer' – but when the name of a song is 'Oslo Oedipus', you know someone is trying a bit too hard. (And I've since discovered that her album is called Innocence Is Kinky...)
I then took in solo electric guitarist Dean McPhee, whose write-up drew a comparison with Mike Oldfield. Not quite, I fear, it's hard for one, seated, instrumentalist to hold an audience's interest if you're not either a striking virtuoso or have really strong melodies. Compared with some others in the field, I didn't really detect either.
Moving briskly on, I sampled the more touted Merchandise, a four-piece guitar band from Tampa, Florida. Lots of thump and energy, rather less in the way of obviously distinctive style or songs. You have to aim off a bit when you can't make out the words, and pausing at the back of the Corn Exchange on the way out, I did pick up some more intriguing echoes of Steve Harley in frontman Carson Cox's vocals. From a bit of subsequent research, the band's interviews seem to be rather more expansive and ambitious than their performances ('The Sound Of Music reimagined by Augustus Pablo' was definitely not what the hardcore I heard brought to mind), but they may well have a more subtle side on record.
I then called in to a rammed Green Door Store on my way home and was pleased to have caught Mac DeMarco, another young Canadian (raised in Edmonton) with a good ear for a hookline and an exuberant air of drunken bonhomie. He wears a backward ball cap (of course) and his grinning, bearded bassist actually wears his – a tasteful Jurassic Park number – sideways. Mac numbers amongst his influences diverse luminaries including Jonathan Richman and Shuggie Otis - and you can genuinely hear that in the music: he's got Richman's ability to control his own time and space vocally above the beat and (strangely, behind the boozy vulgarity) some of his innocence too. Imagine Richman joining the cast of Animal House... and then – suspend that disbelief, now – performing a pisstake of 'Stairway To Heaven', with added blow-job references. And the band can actually do a convincing southern funk, a la Shuggie. It came to me that the bassman could have been a young Levon Helm, delighted to have been served with some underage beers. It's not tasteful, but it's fun and it works. I particularly warmed to them when a know-all voice behind me opined to his companion 'This is the sort of band that gets canned off at Reading' before shouting 'You're shit!'. They're not – and most of the audience were having a great time.