We’re often told that festivals are a dying breed. There’s constant talk of an over-saturated landscape, of tickets being too pricey for the average punter, but The Great Escape seems to suffer from no such problems. Latching itself onto Brighton on a yearly basis, similar to the barnacles that align its pier, it’s been something of a slow burner. Since its inception eight years ago, the pace has only picked up in the past couple of editions, leading many to brand it Britain’s lone answer to SXSW. An almighty claim, yes, but they may have a point. I find the festival to be raw, immersive and probably a massive fucking inconvenience for the people who actually live there, but you can tell that it shall reside here, at the Great British seaside, for many years to come.
Our Great Escape adventure begins, aptly, on the seafront in the intimate surroundings of Digital, alongside the handful of revelers who have headed out early to catch Eaux, a trio who craft beautiful, meandering ambient pop that sounds so brilliant on record, but struggles to ignite live. The smoldering embers of potential are visible, it’s now simply about how the band progress from these initial releases. A promising start. We flee in the direction of the Corn Exchange, where NME are helming proceedings, and Mac DeMarco and his band are strolling through a criminally brief half an hour slot. It’s the first of his two shows that night, but, as we bask in the glow of DeMarco’s youthful and effortlessly cool reinvention of pop at its most basic, you get the impression that he may have peaked already. Time constraints ensure that tracks come thick and fast, each one dripping in delicious American drawl, with ‘Cooking Up Something Good’ receiving the biggest cheer of the set and leaving us confident of seeing DeMarco on bigger stages next year. With our heart’s swooning, we hurry deep into the Brighton outback in search of St Bartholomews Church, where London Grammar happen to be residing. It’s a truly grand setting, perhaps overwhelmingly so, yet it injects a much-needed hint of magic into a performance that threatens to collapse under such fierce hype. Thanks to some astute time management, we find ourselves at The Hope to grovel at the feet of the mighty Dingus Khan. It’s a heady mix of matching boiler suits and shouted vocals, but it makes for an extremely pleasant half an hour. We slope back towards the bustling town centre to catch Everything Everything, always a reliable festival stalwart, filling tonight’s headline slot. They unleash a breathless barrage of wacky time signatures and screeching vocals that leave us scratching our heads as to how the, quite frankly, dreary Bastille can sell out this space in such a short space of time, yet Higgs and co cannot. With our spirits positively soaring but wallets considerably lighter, it’s a brisk stroll back to the Corn Exchange and, this time, it’s Melody’s Echo Chamber who await us. They champion the familiar blend of dream pop and psychedelic rock that Tame Impala have made so popular, yet adorn it with the delicate vocals of Melody Prochet. Tracks such as ‘I Follow You’ and ‘Crystallized’, backed by hazy red strobes, make for a woozy, brooding atmosphere that is well suited to a late night slot, even if the pace does sag a little towards the middle. From here, we find our efforts to catch Phosphorent thwarted by the dreaded queues and head for home.
Day two at The Great Escape begins a little too early. We’ve crammed into the loft of The Mesmerist for a secret Sofar Sounds show and yes, it’s all very intriguing, but I’m sitting on a hard floor and Casimir are failing to make it worth my while. It’s typical indie fare with a predictable acoustic flavor that leaves us wholly underwhelmed. Splashh, on the other hand, prove to be a far more exciting prospect. We find them nestled in The Courtyard (essentially a garage between a clutch of flats) as part of The Alternative Escape, playing a surprisingly early afternoon slot to a lively crowd. They rattle through a taster of forthcoming debut album ‘Comfort’, with an extended, particularly grungy rendition of ‘Need It’ leaving a lasting impression amongst the onlookers. Several hours later and a few hundred miles away from Splashh’s reverb roots, we make our Audio debut to witness the sultry sounds of Andreya Triana. You might argue that Triana shouldn’t even be here. After all, she lent vocals to a Bonobo album and released her debut album in 2010, but she’s returned with a raft of stripped back material that is as subtle as it is brutally personal. A confident stage presence and assured patter steers the performance away from ‘coffee table pastiche’ and surely wins Triana a few more hearts than expected. A short stroll in the direction of the Queens Hotel is interspersed with the spotting of Radio One DJ Huw Stephens (for the record, a very nice man) and the euphoria of finally discovering a venue in Brighton that sells Guinness. Proceedings are running twenty five minutes late, forcing us to endure the uninspiring ramblings of Caitlin Park and ditch MØ (don’t panic, more of her later) in favour of Ed Harcourt. We’re out on a whim here, shunning Childhood due to Sean Adams’ rampant endorsement and the glorious setting of St Mary’s Church, and Harcourt’s rasping tone and haunting piano-led ballads do not disappoint. Unfortunately, it’s a flying visit and we head back to The Hope for a very different kind of show. It’s an old-fashioned rock and roll spectacle that Drenge don’t so much deliver, but bludgeon us to death with. It’s bloody, bruising and pretty fucking ugly, but an expectant crowd lap it up. The sibling duo race through promising album teasers and old favourites such as ‘Bloodsports’ and ‘I Wanna Break You In Half’, as well as a nostalgic stab at Sonic Youth in the form of fresh material (“This is a new song and it’s called…erm, New Song,” Eoin Loveless reliably informs us). A quick glance around the room reveals that we are the only people not sporting earplugs, but it’s worth it; we head for the exits with our hearing obliterated, heart’s propelling themselves into overdrive and The Great Escape’s band of 2013 smashing their way into our brain and kicking it without remorse. We shouldn’t, but everyone wants more. Our curiosity to catch the Swim Deep / Klaxons double header is swiftly quashed due to (probably) the biggest queue of the weekend, so we head in the direction of The Haunt to claim a decent vantage point for US imports Merchandise. It’s their first ever show on these shores and, unsurprisingly, the room is awash with serious record label faces, but the band aren’t content with simply playing a showcase. Nor are they satisfied with merely being another rock band. Guitar solos are in plentiful supply, of course, but smudges of Miles Davis and Nina Simone can be heard through the closest of scrutiny. We spot Huw Stephens again, nodding his head in silent agreement and confirming what we already know. Merchandise are good. Brilliant, even. Feeling suitably impressed, we head for the sea and make our first forays into Coalition to catch Seasfire, who should already be getting to grips with their half an hour set. Except it’s not Seasfire. We’ve been tricked into watching Clean Bandit, another ‘exciting prospect’ who mask a whiff of averageness with the appalling quirk of uniting urban and classical music. We arrive just in time to hear the, quite frankly, blatantly offensive ‘Mozart’s House’, tut in disapproval and promptly depart. Walking along the blackened beach, I find myself thanking The Great Escape for Andreya and Drenge. What a collaboration that would be, eh?
Our final day at The Great Escape marks a return to Audio for a glimpse of much-hyped starlets Superfood. It’s not the show we’re hoping for, as frontman Dom Ganderton sneers and smirks like a rubbish Billie Joe Armstrong over predictable, fuzzy riffs. We’re left cold. It appears that we are not the only punters seeking out teenage sensations The Orwells, as a final visit to The Haunt is foiled by yet another queue and we overhear chatter of an incendiary performance inside. Disheartened yet not defeated, we tread a determined path towards Digital and catch the concluding notes of Diana. It sounds like the band have conjured up something gorgeous, all stuttering drum beats and warm synths, and it’s a shame that we didn’t ditch Superfood sooner for this gifted bunch. Lulu James is all mouth, no trousers. Quite literally, in fact. Her bare legs may be to our liking, but it’s unfortunate that her material is not. The occasional over-enthusiastic rumble of bass and limp vocal work fail to disguise the fact that James is just not very interesting on stage. Luckily, a young Danish girl by the name of Karen is on hand to save our night from descending into a gloomy sludge of disappointment. We get our first glimpse of MØ against a startling backdrop of blue strobe and powerful hip-hop beat. She eyeballs the mass of twisted bodies that inhabit the first few rows, before launching into a machine gun spray of vicious writhing in time with the colossal beats of ‘Pilgrim’. The decision to incorporate a live band and a DJ into her set proves nothing short of breathtaking, as the air conditioning unit above our head begins to lurch and crack under the strain of the bass and drinks clatter to the floor, prompted by forceful vibrations. She’s been touted as the new Grimes, which, whilst believable, is a lazy comparison. In truth, she’s better. As she bounds off stage, it dawns on us that we’ve witnessed a readymade talent, poised to infect the airwaves with her deafening electronica and fierce delivery. MØ has 2013 by the scruff of the neck and good luck to any burgeoning artists attempting to get it back. This years Great Escape wouldn’t be complete without crossing paths with Swim Deep. Returning to a startlingly empty Audio, we find a band playing for time, finally appearing and stumbling through one of the most lumbering sets of the weekend. They’re heavily hyped, hence why we’re here, but even the languorous, sugary sensibilities of ‘The Sea’ can’t haul them from the doldrums. Somewhat crushing. Our weekend is polished off on the floor of the Corn Exchange, allowing the brilliant Darkstar, playing a surprise set, to envelope us in a fog of expansive and spiraling songs from most recent album ‘News From Nowhere’. Flanked by an awe-inspiring light and visual display, it’s a shame that only a handful of revelers are there to witness a set that proves to be a stunning, mellow finish to the festival.