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Entries in Great Escape Festival (2)


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.


The Great Escape 2013 - day one

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.