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Entries in review (6)


Great Escape 2012

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.

Hebridean Celtic Festival

So, a couple of months after the Great Escape, I headed some 700 miles north and west for my second festival of the year...

My first visit to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for Heb Celt Fest and three days jam packed with music. Plus a very quiet Sunday - but we'll get to that later.

The headlines? A lovely festival and well worth the journey. My personal favourites were Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, Ahab and Woodenbox With A Fistful of Fivers, but there was a whole load of other great music, interested audiences and generally a relaxed but enthusiastic vibe. The bands seemed really to enjoy playing there.

This was an amazing trip, deep into the heart of a strong and lively folk tradition: fiddles ubiquitous, pipes a frequent matter-of-fact component of the bands, a lot of Gaelic songs. There were some acts from south of the border, but this was essentially a Scottish festival - and a predominantly northern one within that.

I hadn't appreciated just how strong the Norse connection is here - I was informed by an excellent display at the museum around the Lewis chessmen (a selection scandalously only on loan from the British Museum - bugger the Elgin Marbles, repatriate the chessmen now, I say...) that it was only in the 1260s that the Islands recognised the King of Scotland rather than Norway as their overlord, and then only nominally. You know you're somewhere different. Incidentally, the exhibition also informed me about the pieces helping inspire Oliver Postgate's creation of the wonderful Noggin the Nog...

The streets are full of bars, the bars are full of music, the harbour's full of seals, the main festival site's a striking spot in the castle grounds overlooking the sea. This is a gig with a lot going for it.

As well as the main stage sets in a huge big-top there is a second tented stage, but a lot of the best listening is elsewhere. The local Gaelic radio station broadcast live from a church hall for two hours on the Thursday and Friday afternoons and we took in unplugged sets from four bands each day for free. Then at the end of the evening, from 11 into the early hours, the festival club takes over An Lanntair, the town's splendid theatre and arts centre, for a whole load more sessions from festival performers.

 On Thursday, Stornoway were top of the main stage bill. An irresistible choice, I guess, but they weren't really in their element there. I'd seen them on a small stage in Brighton last year and enjoyed them a lot. They've fleshed out their sound since then, adding a fiddle and beefing up their a arrangements. And there's much to admire on last year's Beachcomber's Windowsill album - though, for me, they've yet to come up with another song in the same league as 'Zorbing'. That song featured strongly in their engaging afternoon set for Radio Nan Gaidheal, but I'm afraid I'd moved on before they reached it in the evening set. Frontman Brian Briggs was reduced to saying to the noisy crowd 'I know you want to party, but we haven't got a set full of party songs', and then went on to compound the difficulty by playing a new, rather wet, song - 'Bigger Picture' - solo to a strummed guitar. Disappointing.

Before then, the Coal Porters had played their bluegrass well for the radio and in a concert at An Lanntair, before returning around midnight for a club set. A busy day for them. They're always good fun and fiddler/vocalist Carly Frey deserves special mention for her strong contribution. But for me the musical highlights of the day came from Ahab's storming small-stage set and a wonderful impromptu tea-time session we happened upon in McNeill's bar...

That session featured an amazing young red-haired fiddler, shouting changes to a willing guitarist, while spurring on a second fiddler and an assortment of accordionists - as well as someone at the back gamely trying to keep up on spoons, all the while cranking up the speed and intensity and playing some gorgeous stuff. Only later did we find out that it was Ross Couper, an extraordinary musician from Shetland and a mainstay of Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag, of whom more later.

Ahab are a sort of anglo-Americana band from Dalston, rather reminiscent (for listeners of a certain age) of Brinsley Schwarz, but with rather better vocals - four singers in the frontline, with strong harmonies. So maybe the comparison should be Fleet Foxes con cojones - or, if that's unfair, with much more onstage energy and attack. They were very obviously enjoying themselves and that was infectious - 'We may never leave the stage if you keep on reacting like that... I'll get my dinner sent up here later' commented Callum Adamson at one point, while Dave Burn took time out to take a video of the crowd (with Adamson orchestrating a friendly shout of 'Get lost, Dalston'.) They rounded off a good set of their own songs with a lively cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's 'Wagon Wheel'. So good taste, too. They've yet to make a full album but have a couple of decent EPs out - they're definitely worth watching.

In an overlapping set Seth Lakeman went down well on the main stage, but left me a little cold: he's a fine fiddler, but I find his singing and his songs rather characterless, and feel the energy level dropping when he straps on a guitar. It has to be said that most of the audience seemed not to agree with me - he went down very well.

Friday's music started well with radio sessions from Rura, Manran and a detachment of Peatbog Faeries (3 from the full 8-piece band) - they all played lively, fiddle-and-pipes-driven, traditionally-based sets. But what they each added to the traditional platform, in those sessions and later on the bigger stages, was instructive. For me, there are two main dangers when folk becomes folk-rock.

The first is bombast - portentous overtones of prog, a sort of pomp-folk. Which is where I'm afraid the Faeries went in the evening, the thudding drums and electronic keyboards and brass overwhelmed the subtlety that was still there in some of the playing and had predominated in the afternoon. I was reminded of Jean-Michel Jarre at some points - and that wasn't what I'd expected or wanted. Kan went the same way on the main stage the following evening - slick, fast, technically impressive - a folk Mahavishnu Orchestra. And then later, with fiddler Aidan O'Rourke apparently still needing 8 or 9 effects pedals to play a slot at the festival club, their set-up overran and then they ignored signals from the wings to make way for Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag's finale. Grrr.

The second danger is adding wet, generic, soft-rock songs as a diversion - and I'm afraid Manran sometimes slipped in that direction on the main stage, as did Saltfishforty the following night. It can be a relief when some of these bands stick to their strengths with strong instrumental sets - and both Manran and Saltfishforty's were great, it must be said.

But I don't want to come over too conservatively: Rura may have avoided the gooey trap by recently adding a rather edgier singer-songwriter to their line-up. He's still only doing a few numbers with them, but has a distinctive voice and seems to give them a useful extra dimension: the rest of the band can do the flat-out fast stuff very competently, but seem better to me on the more reflective, mid-paced pieces which his songs will fit into. Not sure about his rapping though...

And not all the good stuff started from a traditional base. Glasgow's Woodenbox With A Fistful Of Fivers stormed the second stage in the first slot on Friday night. I'd seen them play very well at the Great Escape, but they topped that in Stornoway - high energy from the off, honking brass, driving and inventive drumming, vocalist Ali Downer roaring away happily. A packed tent lapped it up and their forty minute slot seemed far too short. Their songwriting is strong too, and I'm now enjoying getting to know their album Home and the Wild Hunt - check them out if you can.

I've saved the best till last. What's better than a fiddler at a Hebridean folk festival? Seven fiddlers, of course - which is how Shetland's Fullsceilidh Spelemannslag took to the stage, along with keyboards, guitar bass and drums. They closed the small stage on Friday and played a truncated set at the club the following night and were absolutely storming on both occasions. It's a wonderful collective effort, but I have to highlight Ross Couper and Maurice Henderson, sawing away centrestage and driving the whole wonderful juggernaut on. Maurice, who does most of the talking, has the widest, infectious grin plastered across his face all through; Ross is driven at various points to leaping up and down on the spot. They kept finding another gear and cranking up a wildly enthusiastic audience reaction still higher. The band's name is one you'll need to make a conscious effort to remember, but - trust me - it's worth the effort. The Fullsceilidh bit is a very appropriate pun on 'fullscale', given the size of the band. I was trying all weekend to find the joke in Spelemannslag, which I assumed was a made-up word - but then Google enlightened me: it's the Norwegian name for this sort of band. There's a strong Scandinavian element in what they play, with a great set of polkas to the fore. Have a look at their website, which claims this sheep is a member of the band. Sadly, she didn't make the trip to Stornoway.

What a festival - do try it, if you can get there one year.

Oh, and Sunday? Well, Stornoway is shut. We thought we'd stay an extra day and do some exploring round the island. No buses. It poured with rain all day so hardly ideal for walking. Never mind, sit in a pub and read the papers. No papers, no shops open, most bars closed. Oh well, it was restful - and the Stornoway Balti House did stonkingly good business that evening, deservedly so. Another strong recommendation.


The Great Escape - PS

An update on Alexander Tucker - he must just have been having a bad sound day when I saw him: I've been listening to his album Dorwytch and it's very good, with all the delicacy and beauty I'd been hoping for.

Top edenontheline tips from the Great Escape (assuming everyone knows all about Sufjan already):


  • Cloud Control - snap up the album and see them in small places while you still can
  • Brasstronaut - ditto. They're always going to be a bit more of a cult band, but it's a cult well worth signing up to.
  • Woodenbox With A Fistful Of Fivers - head for Stornoway in July.
  • Thus:Owls - Lynne Truss might not approve, but I do.
  • Woodhands - just to prove I wasn't making it up, have a look here...


Looking forward to next year.


The Great Escape - Day Three

A final day dominated by Sufjan Stevens' astonishing concert at the Dome, but with time to take in some new bands first at Canadian Blast's stage at the Komedia.

First up were Said The Whale with some roots-inflected indie. A confident and amiable bunch, with clever arrangements of some bouncy, poppy, but not - for me anyway - particularly memorable songs.

Then came Woodhands - who were anything but anonymous. Weird is the adjective. Seriously so, but weirdly compulsive. They're a keyboard/drum duo from Montreal, but the manic Dan Werb is rather more than your average keyboard player. He has a rack of three keyboards and synths by his side, a huge flightcase full of electronic widgets behind him and one of those Roland guitar-like keyboards slung round his neck. And he sings. And comes up with some of the most exuberant between-song chat I've ever come across. Then partner in crime Paul Banwatt explained that there'd normally be a lot more going on except Dan's looper was broken...

It was as if some nerdy lovechild of Keith Emerson - sadly no knives holding down keys yet, but it could still come - and Todd Rundgren (in his Utopia pomp) was taking his first solo holiday, and had chosen Ibiza in the nineties. 'Brighton - you're the shit!' Dan squealed memorably at one point. 'Congratulations for living here,' then adding, with classic Canadian even-handedness, 'and for visiting.'

It all left Hey Rosetta! looking tediously normal, but things were fine when they started playing. I only caught a couple of songs but the Newfoundland six-piece quickly played up a storm, deploying cello and fiddle to good effect. 

And so on to Sufjan Stevens, in a very different league. One of the most spectacular shows I've ever seen, with a ten-piece band (two drummers, two keyboards, two trombones, guitar, bass, two singers), amazing back-projected films, UV-responsive colours on everyone's clothes, movement, dancing, costume changes, ticker tape and balloons descending at the end of the marathon performance... wow and wow.

He opened by revisiting Seven Swans in silver wings and encored, gorgeously, with 'Chicago' from Illinois but the set in between was essentially drawn from his current album The Age of Adz and last summer's All Delighted People 'EP' (it's actually a vinyl double album). And the material is undeniably an issue. Possibly the finest lyricist of his generation isn't particularly interested in writing lyrics at the moment and wants to get away from the style he developed so brilliantly in the first half of the last decade. Fair enough - but he doesn't seem entirely comfortable about where he's at himself, giving lengthy, defensive, explanations of what he's currently about to a warm and sympathetic Dome audience.

Yesterday's Guardian gave him a four star review and that feels right to me - he's a five star artist giving his all but not quite hitting the sweet spot of his creativity. It's going to be really interesting to see what happens next - Sufjan Stevens does not do dull. It may be that the current patch will turn out to be his equivalent of Neil Young's Trans and Re-ac-tor in the eighties - interesting and well-realised experiments made in troubled times, but somewhat off the main track. Anyway, wherever he's heading next, I'm staying along for the ride.


The Great Escape - Day Two

We're on a roll now - soaking in some wildly different styles, singer-songwriter to dubstep to prog. At least a couple of excellent discoveries and all rounded off with another blast from the wonderful Cloud Control.

Lunchtime with the snappily named Woodenbox With A Fistful of Fivers, who'd driven through the night from Glasgow to be there. Sax and trumpet alongside two guitars, bass and drums. Less folky than I was expecting - driven from frontman Ali Downer's tightly strummed acoustic but subtle, shifting rhythms and excellent textures from the brass. Confident enough to begin one song with some whistling... The final 'Twisting Mile' (also available on white vinyl 7", collectors) has almost show-tune elements before storming into a frantic controlled accelerando to finish. Downer remarked after one song 'We normally play this off our faces, late at night... I don't know why I told you that.' Appetite nicely whetted for their (evening) appearance at the Heb Celt festival in Stornoway in July, especially after a nice chat with their fine and friendly drummer Nick Dudman.

They were followed by fellow-Scot Rachel Semmani - lovely, big voice, good fingerpicking, sweet stories (the travails of working on a burger van)... I was less immediately convinced by her songs, but definitely worth a listen.

Then an unplanned stop for Coda, not knowing what to expect. They were great: guitar, trombone, drums, keyboards and what the frontman introduced as 'effects and shit', seamlessly blending dub, techno and almost metal guitar parts into something infectious and accessible. I was left reflecting that The Clash really started something with 'Police and Thieves' on their first album - and that testosterone will win out whatever genre young lads choose.

The evening shift began with Sweden's Thus:Owls, on the basis that any band with a colon in their name deserves some attention. (Punctuation is important: I always placed 'Paint It, Black' higher in the Stones' canon than it would otherwise be on the song's merits because of that crucial comma. But I digress... ) Slow, portentous prog - but always interesting and effective. Singer Erika Angell has a striking and powerful voice - if you can imagine a Venn diagram of Björk and Renate Knaup of Amon Düül II (do try, now), the interface will be pretty narrow but it's a good place to be. Erika also has an appealing habit of jumping up and down on the spot at moments of particularly high drama. Definitely worth further study.

My cunning plan then was to squeeze in to the Hope, if possible - it's always heaving, and wait for Cloud Control's set at the end of the evening. The plan worked but involved absorbing a determinedly weird set from Paris Suit Yourself (loud, punky, repetitive beats, incomprehensible frontman giving the front row libations from a litre bottle of Smirnoff, wild (male) drummer in a black miniskirt - I know it all sounds good in theory, but it didn't really gel for me); and a rather duller one from Breton, boys in hoodies and caps from central casting, hunched over laptops, projecting seemingly random images onto a creased white sheet they'd clipped to the back wall, beats, beats, beats - oh, and beats... It was also boiling hot.

Still, the plan worked - and brought the bonus of a chat at the bar with Cloud Control's lovely Heidi Lenffer who'd spotted my notebook and suspected journalistic intentions. We touched on their BTV session (it was cold) and I said that it was a good test of a song's strength that it will hold up in very different arrangements - duly exemplified when they opened with a blistering take on 'Meditation Song #2'. It was a similarly structured set to the day before, and delivered with the same intensity. Guitarist Alister Wright seemed more relaxed, grinning through streaming sweat with a rueful comment of 'My voice is fucked', although it didn't seem to be... A great set and well received. Onwards and upwards, Heidi - you're definitely on your way. I'm sure Bliss Release is going to get a fine reception when it's finally released here later this month - of course some reviewers, like this one, were well ahead of the pack and even placed it in their 2010 top ten...