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Entries in TGE2013 (2)


The Great Escape 2013 - day three

By day three I'm starting to flag, but Canada House at the Blind Tiger looks intriguing: a line-up sponsored by music organisations from three of the western provinces. I'm off to Alberta at the end of July, so this could be a good warm-up.

'We're here to show you that Western Canada is about more than just wheatfields, gravel roads and kissing your cousin behind the barn,' says the man from Manitoba Music, introducing Winnipeg sextet Royal Canoe.

"Of course, we still have all those things. But we also have stuff like this..."

And it's good stuff, too: two drummers, electronics, heavy on the vocal effects. An awful lot going on, but a keen sense of space and dynamics means it's never overloaded. There's a fractured funk at the heart of it, with counter-rhythms skittering across a generally slow central beat. They'll build up to an intense climax, with a roaring vocal taken down to Beanstalk giant fee-fie-fo-fum depths, then cut away to a single choppy guitar. I'd like to hear more.

(Special useless trivia note: Royal Canoe's guitarist bears an uncanny resemblance to the captain of the UCL team beaten in the final of this year's University Challenge.)

A few minutes later it's the turn of Lab Coast. Their introduction affirms that people 'don't tend to associate the city of Calgary with the avant garde'. Well, we still don't. The band chug along nicely, without scaring the horses, but it feels like indie-by-the-yard rather than anything particularly distinctive - with the proviso that I couldn't make out many of the words.

There's no stagecraft here: they're the sort of band where the singer keeps both hands on the mic stand and the guitarists study the necks intently, as if worried that the frets might suddenly move... I felt rather protective of them and, in the absence of other distractions, found myself focusing on the way the lead guitarist bounces on the balls of his feet before tip-toeing back and forth to his pedals, like he's trying to take them by surprise. Anyway, they relax a bit as the set proceeds and start to exchange smiles. It was enjoyable for the audience, too.

There was no reticence about Winnipeg five-piece Boats. They clearly enjoy being on stage and like to fling themselves around. Frontman Mat Klachefsky does a good line in manic stares and, at one point, managed to roll his guitar up to his neck in its strap while still playing...

There's an archness about their manner and the snatches of lyrics which were audible - what is it about Winnipeg bands and vocal effects? - which put me in mind of Sparks: the vocal swoops and higher register of Russell Mael coupled with brother Ron's glare. 'This is a song called "Advice On Bears"' ran one introduction. 'It's about advice on bears...' They may be trying too hard, but at least they're trying. It was an energetic and well-received set.

Next up were Fist City, a quartet from Lethbridge, Alberta, who play thrashy punk with all the subtlety of their name - though that name is taken from a Loretta Lynn song, I now see. Excellent energy and drive, but I'm not sure I detected a lot else in the music. They do what they set out to do convincingly and well.  Oh, and bassist Lindsay Munro has very nice dimples.

By this point I was ready for a change of scene. The 'Don't Panic, We're From Poland' session at the Dome Studio was unfortunately full. So I tried Luke Sital-Singh, who can'th, I fear.

I called it a day and, heading home, looked in at the Independent Record Fayre to say hello to the Art Is Hard guys, who put out some fine music in lovely packages, and also some decidedly stylish teeshirts. Consider yourselves plugged, chaps.


The Great Escape 2013 - day two

It was definitely Billy Bragg's day, with a strong contender for performance of the year, not just of TGE. In comparison with the other stuff I saw, it's a bit like wondering how the rest got on when Mo Farah turned up for the dads' race at sports day...

It was probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen Billy over the last 25 years or so and the first that he's had a full band available throughout. We still got some solo and stripped-down numbers, but it was good to have the range, texture and oomph that his four collaborators brought to the show. A particular mention for CJ Hillman, swapping between a pedal steel and a Rickenbacker to great effect, but they were all excellent. (It must be a bit tricky playing country music as the 'other Chris Hillman', but CJ doesn't suffer by the comparison.)

And was it country music? Yes, sometimes. So what? Billy got to crack some gags about 'rocking the radical Kenny Rogers look' and tell some stories about pearl snap shirts, but in truth this very English songwriter sits solidly in a transatlantic tradition – as his entirely apt choice for the Mermaid Avenue project, setting previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to new music, fully demonstrated. He played 'Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key' from that album, alongside Woody's 'I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore.'

On both, and throughout the set, Bragg has never been in better voice – deeper as he gets older, but smoother too and deployed with confidence and range. He still jokes, sipping his herbal tea at the end, that its magical properties make him believe he's singing in tune, but his strong and lived-in larynx is now a definite strength, as its foghorn side has faded somewhat over time.

That's not to say that there's any less fire or righteous anger on show, as diatribes against political cynicism and a powerful reading of 'Ideology' demonstrate. The set ranges freely across the decades and everything he choses – the overtly political and the more personal and emotional, from his current album way back to 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' from 1983 – fits into a coherent and cohesive whole. Special mentions for a luminous 'Tank Park Salute' (I'm welling up again as I type this...) and a deftly tweaked 'Great Leap Forwards' (the uncle 'who once played for Red Star Belgrade' now says he has 'left your aunt and run off with the postman'), but I loved the whole show. There was the odd grumble on the way out that he hadn't played 'New England' - but, hey, think of what he did play and the strength of that 30 year back catalogue. (He had a nice riposte to shouted requests for more obscure numbers: 'Thank you, madam, but you only have to remember the title...') Thanks, Bill. Five stars.

And, in other news...

I'm kicking myself for getting to the Dome too late to catch more than the last couple of songs from Del Barber, a singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, who has a clear strong voice, accomplished guitar style and confident stage manner – which is not straightforward in a half-empty 2000 seat hall. I'll be looking out for more from him.

I only saw two songs from second support Sean McGowan too, but that was a choice. He has a strong, ranty voice, very reminiscent of a young Billy Bragg, but – for me – none of Bragg's focus or songwriting subtlety. It struck me as ranting to no purpose, I'm afraid.

The pick of the shows I caught earlier in the day was punk duo L'Hereu Escampa from Barcelona. Thunderous drumming and high energy attack, speeding up and slowing down to great effect. The shouted vocals – in Catalan, apparently, but it could have been anything – might get wearing after a while, but for half an hour this was a gripping set. (I think there must be something in the water in that part of Spain that turns out great drummers: L'Hereu are not quite in the same league, but came across rather like a stripped down version of Fergusson, one of my hits of TGE 2012.)

A mention in dispatches for Kinnie the Explorer, who coped well with a disappointingly thin audience at the Brighthelm Centre and built some nicely floating prog-tinged indie from intricate repetitive patterns. They lack a naturally strong vocalist, but there is a lot there to build on.

I was less keen on Alarm Bells, a young Scottish 5-piece, clearly determined to take the world by storm, and ready to deploy the kitchen sink in doing so. Their first number included dry ice, strobes, the singer whirling the mic around on its lead, the guitarist waving his unstrapped instrument about and some siren-like wailing. They built from there. The words 'unholy' and 'racket' came unbidden to my brain and I moved on.