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The Great Escape: Five Essential New Acts
Stuart Huggett , May 23rd, 2016 16:51

Reporting back from this year's Great Escape, Stuart Huggett finds the festival staying true to its roots even after a decade, and — in the spirit of its focus on new music — selects five essential new acts from the 2016 instalment

The Great Escape festival reached the milestone of its tenth anniversary this year but skirted nostalgic fanfare to concentrate on its founding principle as a new music showcase. Despite its use as a Brighton seaside jolly for the industry, this makes it now one of the few major UK weekenders to put on continually forward thinking bills in our safely played, retro-rewarded festival market. With only a tiny number of returning successes (Band Of Skulls, Mystery Jets, The Joy Formidable) and surprise guests (step forward Thursday night’s party hero Craig David) to spark the casual browser’s attention, some of the festival veterans we bumped into over the weekend admitted to feeling a little out of touch, uncertain whether the bill was weaker than usual or they were simply getting old. Losing its use of the central Brighton Dome venues for much of the weekend certainly removed some of the festival’s focus, forcing this year’s top-up ticketed Spotlight shows into smaller, second-tier homes out in Hove (Stormzy’s Dome Concert Hall headline aside). Scattering into the festival’s ever-growing portfolio of small venues, however, there was much gold worth sifting through the indie-rock sediment for. We’ve plucked out some purely personal highlights from the 500 or so on offer.

Connie Constance, The Arch, Thursday

Shadwell songwriter Connie Constance made a striking debut with last year’s slow burning In The Grass EP, a team-up with former Black Acre artist Blue Daisy, released while guesting on the producer’s own Darker Than Blue album. Performing an afternoon show in The Arch (formerly Brighton club legend The Zap), Constance appears with her backing band The Expansions, swapping some of her music’s electronic edges for soft, rippling jazz piano and, in the coda to ‘Scripted Love’, a splash of lovers rock reggae. While Constance’s casual magnetism is strong enough to hold the crowd’s focus, somewhere under a neighbouring promenade arch another group’s drum soundcheck keeps bleeding into her quieter moments, puncturing the spell between songs. Imaginative calling-card tune ‘Stars’ (“Wanna leave Earth and learn to live on Mars / Build a UFO that’s faster than your mum’s car”) stands out in a promising set of new London soul.

Nova Twins, Coalition, Thursday

At near-neighbouring beachfront club Coalition, teen titans Nova Twins play a blistering set of head-banging beats and fuzz riffs that scores highly with the venue’s student bar staff, who bounce off each other throughout the set. Part of that southern English punk milieu that swirls around cult heroes Wonk Unit, the same one that unexpectedly brought Slaves to prominence, Nova Twins are fireball singer-guitarist Amy Love and bassist Georgia South and they make an attitude-heavy mash of Beastie Boys shouting and ear-scrubbing Rage Against The Machine guitar noise. Nova Twins’ sole recorded output to date is the attention grabbing ‘Bassline Bitch’ and every track matches that for snotty urban attitude and firepower. They’re the pop group you really didn’t know you needed and their bastard daughters of grindie (ahem) style means they’ll either turn into this year’s Test Icicles or they’ll eat the world.

Dream Wife, Shipwright’s Yard, Friday

Last year, Anglo-Icelandic trio Dream Wife were on the Brighton art college scene, making swooshing electronic dream pop with a Neapolitan ice cream dollop of pastel visual suss (exemplified by the gorgeous ‘Believe’, excised from this afternoon’s set). Upping sticks for the big smoke, they return to their former hometown as part of Republic Of Music’s industry-heavy, teeny-tiny Alternative Escape shindig in Shipwright’s Yard, which, for the very first time this year, we actually manage to gain access to. They’re a harder and sharper beast than before, irrepressible singer Rakel Mjöll yelping her way through ramalama opener ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ like she’s having the party of her life, despite performing in the daylight under what’s essentially a garage awning. Guitarist Alice Go thrashes at her guitar until her fingers bleed (“Blood on the tracks!” laughs Rakel) before playing the jittery punk funk of ‘Lolita’. At some point they also sign a record deal, play a bunch of other secret shows and are finally found dancing all over us at Chastity Belt’s Saturday afternoon show. Queens of noise, they are.

Meilyr Jones, Sallis Benney Theatre, Friday

Much favoured by British Sea Power of this parish, Wales’ Race Horses forged a bilingual, Pulp-esque path until splitting in 2013, that date lending itself to the title of stringy singer Meilyr Jones’ breath-taking debut album. There’s still a touch of the Cocker in his theatrical stage moves and dry banter this evening (“This song makes use of the much-neglected in our lifetime… bongos”) but Jones has blossomed into his own man, a riveting, angel-voiced presence, a true star. In an ambitious attempt to match the spacious swoon of his orchestral recordings, Jones’ four-piece band gamely switch their standard rock instruments for violin, horn and sax, sometimes several times within the space of one song. Swinging his microphone aside, Jones overcomes the casual dickhead TGE chatter with the force of his voice on ‘Passionate Friend’ (not the Teardrop Explodes song, but approaching its blazing triumph). Finale ‘Featured Artist’ misses the Eric Matthews indebted horns of its recorded glory but you can’t have everything just yet, at least not until Jones’ fully deserved West End theatre residency is made manifest.

Diet Cig, The Hope & Ruin, Saturday

New York’s Diet Cig also crop up more times this weekend than buskers bearing business cards. The slot we catch is a mid-afternoon appearance at local promoters Love Thy Neighbour’s off-schedule winner in the main, street-side bar of The Hope & Ruin (a well programmed affair that finds bevvied up stag parties bowling in off the train from London to be confronted with the feminist guitar power of Chastity Belt and Beverly). While Diet Cig’s records are a little too politely indiepop, they’re a more exuberant pair live, singer and guitarist Alex Luciano leaping into the air, bounding off Noah Bowman’s drums and high kicking throughout their set to the reward of a packed venue otherwise straining to see them. Revelling in the festival’s atmosphere, Alex Luciano shouts out to fellow TGE performers Frankie Cosmos (a Diet Cig inspiration), girls, trans and non-binary friends everywhere, her energy cementing her band’s place as one of the weekend’s deservingly big successes.