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Great Escape 2014

Just a paddle in this year's Great Escape festival, after the immersion of recent years.

I knew that other commitments would keep me from wandering the streets and bars of Brighton for the full three days, but I had to sign up when The Hold Steady were added to the bill. I then caught half a dozen other sets and snippets of a few more - but I'm not your source this year for a real overview or 'best of' list.

 I've been following The Hold Steady's records since picking up Separation Sunday six or seven years ago but haven't had the chance to see them live before. I was doubtful whether a 45 minute festival slot might not suit what can be a discursive narrative style to front man Craig Finn's songs, but I needn't have worried.

They were tight, focused and powerful, using every minute to good effect. The opening chords of the next song rang out before the crowd had time to acknowledge the last. Finn was pumped up and bouncing, striding up to the edge of the stage and shouting off-mic, clearly enjoying being free from the constraints of guitar duties now Steve Selvidge has joined the band.

The set was a seamless blend of the punchiest stuff from this year's Teeth Dreams - including opener 'I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You' and the lovely 'Big Cig' - with some irresistible older classics. Six albums in, they're a band with a back catalogue to kill for: 'Constructive Summer', 'Sequestered In Memphis', 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend' and 'Chips Ahoy!' all featured, and all sounded as fresh and crunchy as ever. The last of these - a tall tale of a girl who can foresee the winners of races - was briefly introduced with:

This is a song about a boy and a girl and a horse...

and that was about as chatty as Craig allowed himself to be, before a slightly longer paean to the joys of going out and joining a rock crowd, instead of sitting at home with electronic devices, as he led the way to 'Spinners'. Another of the stronger songs from the current album, it's a movingly uncynical portrayal of the ups and downs of a single-again girl going back to the city scene:

She's two years off some prairie town.

She dresses up and she spins around.

Little looks and smaller talk.

Heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off.

It was really good to see a band so full of fire and enthusiasm at a stage in their career when they might have hoped to be bigger. Finn's lyrics are intricate, perceptive and clever - but also often very funny. I still smile whenever I think of the hapless narrator of 'Sequestered In Memphis' being interrogated about the aftermath of a one-night stand:

In bar-light, she looked all right.

In daylight she looked desperate.

But that's all right - I was desperate too.

I'm getting pretty sick of this interview...

If I'm not preaching to the already-converted, why not give that song a try?

I'd already got my money's worth from The Great Escape after three quarters of an hour from The Hold Steady, but what else can I tell you?

Finnish heavy metal band the Von Hertzen Brothers were exactly what that description will bring to mind, and were not for me, I fear.

I very much liked Ethan Johns' work on Laura Marling's last album and he obviously has a fine pedigree from producer father Glyn. But I was left unmoved by his tasteful but formulaic Americana, 'there's a red moon on the rise', etc. 

I had better luck on Saturday afternoon. One of the joys of festival-going is hearing styles of music you don't normally listen to, and Poland's Rebeka - a synth and beats based electro-pop duo - were certainly in that category.

They won me over with a high-energy set, dramatic vocals (occasional echoes of Donna Summer?) and strong stage presence.

Singer Iwona Skwarek drew things to a conclusion with:

We are quite wet now so we have to finish

but an enthusiatic crowd at the Green Door Store were ready for more.

Earlier, I'd caught a couple of bands in what seems to have become a traditional Canadian session at the Blind Tiger Club. A man from Alberta Music praised the federal and provincial governments for the amount of support they provide for this sort of activity: apparently Canada is 37th in a list of the world's countries by population and 8th by music exports...

Anyway, Calgary's Boreal Sons had a nice manner and some carefully wrought songs - though the lyrics were a bit too overwrought and sensitive for my taste (shirt cuffs brushing dust motes from window sills and the like).

But my top discovery of this year were the band that followed them: Powder Blue, from Saskatoon. They were billed as psychedelic rock and I also caught elements of shoegaze, Krautrock and even Jesus and Mary Chain-style surf in the mix. It's a tight, drony, layered sound, shorn of any luxuriation in melodic soloing. I found myself mesmerised by Amber Kraft's drumming - an object lesson in precision, attack and sheer brutality. She put me in mind of Free's Simon Kirke in his pomp, both for the sound and the way she disappeared behind a curtain of hair, absorbed in pulverising the kit. And full marks to keyboard player Elsa Gebremichael for a pretty good effort when the pair swapped instruments for one number.

Anyway, the band have an excellent mini-album out, Dream In Black - available on appropriately powder blue vinyl, as well as on cassette. Pretty cool artefacts, I'd say.

There's a taster below. 'Go On Forever' sounds attractively like it could do just that.

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