Potential Fulfilled: The Great Escape 2015 Reviewed

The Brighton festival celebrated ten years of service with an ace selection of newcomers, welcome returners and a few choice oldies. Stuart Huggett and Laurie Tuffrey round up the highlights from the three-dayer

Photograph courtesy of Milo Belgrove

Kelela, The Arch, Thursday

Down on the beach, the mortar-fire kicks of ‘Bank Head’ rattle through The Arch, a matt black-pillared bunker, signalling Kelela’s arrival. In one sense, it feels premature, as the venue is barely full, half-full even. Admittedly, the Washington, D.C. singer has her work cut out, with the XL showcase taking place just a few metres down the seafront, and, what with Mumdance and Novelist topping the bill there, it’s understandable that the hype tide might be sloshing at Coalition’s front door (also, something of a pity: Kelela joining that pairing could surely make for some good results). Equally, the stage feels a little bare, no one but Kelela and her DJ up there in a venue that’s a little unsympathetic to less-than-heaving crowd levels, though to give him credit, the man with the radiant bleached hair and jacket emblazoned with ‘FUCK TORY BRITAIN’ does try to bring the party as best as one man can. Kelela needn’t worry, though: the music’s good enough to sidestep this scant attendance. The Nguzunguzu-produced ‘Enemy’ remains a chrome-lined shotgun blaster of a track, complemented by a pared-back version of ‘Floor Show’ that revolves in the track’s intense tacit energy. Tracing the move away from that type of disjointed avant-R&B she tapped on Cut 4 Me, the set ends with newer songs ‘The High’ and ‘A Message’, which both seem to have understood the malleability of Kelela’s voice, taking out almost all other backing bar sullen thumps to let her vocals flare and haze. You leave hoping both that she’ll pursue this direction further and that more people will hear it when she does.

In a turn of pure bafflement, shortly after Kelela’s set, the Prince Albert is heaving to one-in-one-out capacity for Tropics, who could broadly be said to work in the same emotive pop arena as Kelela. The thing is, where the latter’s music feels muscular and punchy, Tropics are limper than the most venerable veterans of the pub’s bar towel collection. Still, as the old adage goes, Tropics’ loss is Menhancer’s gain, and the man I pass in the toilets who’s so confounded by the notion of herbal viagra that he insists on reading out every line on the vending machine with wide-eyed disbelief can duly consider his new discovery box checked. Laurie Tuffrey

PINS, Green Door Store, Thursday

Photograph courtesy of Chris Bethell

Before catching the tail end of a recent show supporting Drenge, I’d had PINS pinned as a slightly shadowy garage band, all dourness and reverb. Dead wrong. The clues were always there on the Go-Go’s beat of ‘Get With Me’ (which opens tonight’s glorious show), but they’re a total bloody pop group. Giving out pre-show goodie bags of sweets and party poppers helps to confirm this blindingly obvious fact. Forever leaping to her feet mid-song, drummer Sophie Galpin is perhaps the most excitable member of the ever-smiling Manchester gang, but only just. ‘Young Girls’ and ‘Oh Lord’ are delirious joys in a Dum Dum Girls vein, and the final ‘Girls Like Us’/’Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ medley doesn’t stop bouncing. Top of the pops mate. Stuart Huggett

Sasha Siem, Paganini Ballroom, Friday

Photograph courtesy of Jon Southcoasting

The undersized balcony and darkened drapes that deck out the Paganini Ballroom of The Old Ship Hotel are a fitting setting to experience Sasha Siem’s music, roiling torch songs riven with something other. Her recent debut album Most Of The Boys has moments that evoke the close-feeling upsurge of Sigur Rós or the gorgeous micro-textures of songs like Andrew Bird’s ‘Anonanimal’ – ‘Valentine’, the closer, bears testimony – but her live set-up, underpinning tremulous violin lines with a pair of drummers, makes the most of the record’s jagged rhythmic potency. The sound that she reaches is something that has the gold leaf grandiosity of Rufus Wainwright on Want Two, riven with the thunderous clatter of These New Puritans’ Hidden, which transcends the diminutive function room and assumes huge proportions. Laurie Tuffrey

The Zombies, The Black Lion, Friday

It’s mid-afternoon in this busy pub in The Lanes and tables full of families and lunchtime diners have just been swamped by eagle-eyed festivalgoers who’d spotted 60s survivors The Zombies in the Alternative Escape small print. Crammed into the back of the bar, there’s only space for the delightfully polite Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent to play today (the full-band show comes to Brighton Pier tomorrow). Even fifty years down the line, there’s still no weakening in the power of Blunstone’s voice or Argent’s rolling piano. Avoiding total nostalgia, they open with a brace of new and work-in-progress songs, before ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ gives way to an Odessey And Oracle suite, ‘She’s Not There’ and ‘I Don’t Believe In Miracles’. It’s a long way from the Great Escape’s new music raison d’être, but too good a guest spot to miss. Stuart Huggett

English Heretic, St George’s Church, Friday

This year the Quietus stage is way out east in the restrained neo-classical enclave of St. George’s Church in Kemp Town and the daylight is still glowing through the arches for English Heretic’s opening set. Andy Sharp has enlisted a rhythm section of Paul Robertson (bass) and Phil Mason (drums), a series of uneasy cinema landscapes looping in the background as the trio generate dark instrumental shadows. The mood is more gently askew than occult, Andy Sharp’s readings touching on "English coastal defences" as the music morphs from doomed post-punk crawl to minimal Cabaret Voltaire throb. The spell pops when they suddenly unplug and exit, but across a weekend stuffed with acts so eager to impress, it’s rare to see anyone disregard festival convention with so hermetic a vision. Stuart Huggett

The Posies, Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Friday

Another bunch of cult heroes sneaking their way past the Great Escape’s new music border guards, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer use their mid-evening appearance to debut a set of brand new songs from their forthcoming album. Backed by simple drum machine programs, the amiable pair’s West Coast ballads and power pop instincts are intact on half a dozen unheard numbers. "We’re still writing the banter for this tour," Auer deadpans, but otherwise there’s little hesitancy in their performance. Nearing the close of their short slot, they knock out an effortless ‘Coming Right Along’ from Frosting On The Beater, to a cheer of recognition from the partisan crowd. Guess they’ll be back again, one day or another. Stuart Huggett

The Big Moon, The Haunt, Friday

Photograph courtesy of Andy Sturmey

One of the Great Escape’s hot industry tips, The Big Moon’s big moment almost unravels completely at The Haunt when leader Juliette Jackson’s guitar dies two songs in. The group pull themselves through the lengthy hiccup with good natured aplomb, guitarist Soph Nathan (whose own excellent Brighton band Our Girl also play this weekend) taking the initiative to deal with the faulty gear. Debut single ‘Sucker’ gets bonus points round here for lifting its artwork from Tom Schiller’s cult movie Nothing Lasts Forever and it’s a lot more vigorous live than on radio-friendly record. The Big Moon have filtered the wiry pop of Elastica through the fractured nature of The Libertines school, their deconstruction of Madonna’s ‘Beautiful Stranger’ turning New York glamour into knockabout London grit. Stuart Huggett

Blanck Mass, St. George’s Church, Friday

Photograph courtesy of Carolina Faruolo

Frequently beautiful though Lubomyr Melnyk’s set in St. George’s (above) was, the dust gathered in the Victorian edifice’s nooks must have remained unsettled. But it felt like an apt precursor to what Benjamin Power deals out with his headline slot. Melnyk unfurled constant waves of sound – "pure metaphysics", in his words – rendered to evoke an image of butterflies ascending; Power does something similar, but he fabricates a distortion-rinsed, metallic sheet of noise, one occasionally punctured by caustic solar flares. The hefty sounds of new album Dumb Flesh get visual backing from a revolving skull, cycling through oversaturated, lurid colours, followed by the same non-specific fleshy mass that adorns the record’s cover, convulsing grossly. When ‘Chernobyl’ arrives, it’s clear why Ben Wheatley used it to score Whitehead’s unhinging in A Field In England: live, it sounds pretty fucking mighty and, inextricably wed to those images, it feels like it’s redolent of mania, something grand and terrible, slowed down, atomised. Laurie Tuffrey

Shopping, Paganini Ballroom, Friday

For a Brighton resident, even armed with a Great Escape map and fluctuating phone GPS, the entrance to the Old Ship Hotel’s Paganini Ballroom is an arse-ache to locate as midnight approaches. Finally found, we walk in to one of the weekend’s big parties as Shopping lead the crowd through their giddy, trampolining disco-punk. Singer and guitarist Rachel Aggs is always down here with one DIY band or another and Shopping have emerged as the best-loved of the lot. A hundred-odd fans are doing their best to pogo on the Paganini’s thick carpets while at the back of the ballroom, grown adults are running round playing planes like kids at a wedding reception. The best late-night Shopping there is. Stuart Huggett

The Lytics, Green Door Store, Saturday

Buoying up Saturday’s early afternoon run through the Canadian contingent at the festival are The Lytics, a five-piece hip-hop crew from Winnipeg. Pivoting on Tribe-esque boom bap and founded on the group’s cast of distinctive voices, for this set anchored around producer Alex "B-Flat" Sannie, they deal out the kind of torrent of positive energy that feels a little in short supply at the moment, and it’s entirely refreshing. The feeling goes both ways, too: "Maybe if we feel like it, we’ll do an instructional video for the people back home," says Sannie to the crowd, fairly losing their shit despite it being 2.30 in the afternoon, and emerging from the blackout darkness of the Green Door Store into the blazing sunshine outside, it’s hard not to feel a lot of gratitude for The Lytics’ presence on the bill. Laurie Tuffrey

Bad Breeding, Corn Exchange, Saturday

Flogged to hell and back as it is, the old adage "if you want something doing properly, do it yourself" does come to mind when Bad Breeding’s frontman Chris Dodd vaults the Corn Exchange’s barrier to self-generate a circle pit at the end of the band’s slot. That’s no comment on the set itself, mind, which is little short of glorious. On record, the Stevenage four-piece sound furiously direct, not a scrap of fat on their two-minute outbursts. Live, it’s manifest as rabid, dissonant noise-punk, the band tearing through their set with scant regard for anything other than unleashing as much energy as they can in 30 minutes. In honesty, it’s a surprise that Dodd has to bring the band’s DIY approach to crowd control; a set like this should have seen people bouncing off the rafters. Laurie Tuffrey

Girl Band, Corn Exchange, Saturday

Photograph courtesy of Mike Burnell

Ever since we heard Girl Band’s cover of ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage?’ in January 2013 we’ve been well-enamoured of the Dublin group. More than most new bands, it feels like their sound is in flux, something they’ve decidedly not settled on yet. Blawan’s imprint was still there on ‘Lawman’ – which slays live, Alan Duggan and Daniel Fox undoing everything they’ve learned about playing guitar and bass, instead just trading hulking great drills of sound off one another. A new song they play – "it goes reeeeal slow", drawls singer Dara Kiely – draws on the kind of tremulous, wavering needles of guitar that Kevin Shields hung most of the You Made Me Realise EP around, shading the track in a delirious unspooling. They don’t play ‘Why They Hide…’ at their Corn Exchange set, and they’re right not to; there’s no need. The band have more than exceeded that sense of head-spinning exhilaration that came with that song in their own material, leaving you feeling sandblasted and wrung through (in a good way, of course), with their forthcoming debut proper lingering on the horizon. Hats off to the non-musician musicians. Laurie Tuffrey

Virginia Wing, The Basement, Saturday

In recent years, the no-wristband-required Alternative Escape has become so well organised that it almost rivals the main festival itself, with many of the best core bands playing free shows to those too late or simply too skint to buy a ticket. Fire Records’ showcase in arts centre The Basement is a case in point, with Virginia Wing and Sweden’s Death And Vanilla a big draw this evening. The Radiophonic Moog-ie wonderland of Virginia Wing’s Measures Of Joy was one of last year’s richest releases and it transfers vividly on stage, Alice Merida Richards conducting proceedings from a V-shaped bank of synths, coolly delivering ‘World Contact’ and ‘Marnie’ even while an intrusive photographer gets his lens so close he threatens to boff her on the nose. Stuart Huggett

Novella, Brighthelm Centre, Saturday

The Brighthelm is more used to holding council meetings and community workshops than gigs but its spacious theatre is one of the festival’s most reliably relaxed spaces. The fabulously well turned-out Novella have roots in the city via singer and guitarist Hollie Warren and bassist Suki Sou and they pull a loyal crowd for their harmonically rich, organ-splashed garage pop. As songs like ‘Something Must Change’, from swish debut Land hurtle hypnotically along, the potential first witnessed at 2012’s Great Escape has been admirably fulfilled. Outside, the evening air is thick with the scent of flowers in the Brighthelm gardens. A perfect moment. Stuart Huggett

Pinkshinyultrablast, Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Saturday

Thanks to this year’s head-rush of a debut Everything Else Matters, I’ve been chasing Russia’s Pinkshinyultrablast all day, regrettably walking out on their Black Lion show after just a minute to fulfil my team duties at John Robb’s Great Escape Pop Quiz. Finally catching up with the shoegaze disciples in a steamy Sticky Mike’s, they don’t disappoint. Led by the whiplash moves of vocalist Lyubov Soloveva, their live wall of noise is indebted more to the post-My Bloody Valentine, Camden-lurch energy of Th’ Faith Healers than mere Thames Valley shoe shyness, given a further twist through synthesist Rustam Izmailov’s table of wires. Shuddering fun. Stuart Huggett

Stormzy, Skepta & JME, Brighton Dome, Saturday

Photograph courtesy of Mike Burnell

It’s probably fair to say that no sets go off this weekend in the same way as Saturday night’s grime bill at the Dome. The atmosphere is never less than primed; the sub-ten seconds of ‘German Whip’ that the DJ plays in-between Stormzy and headliners Skepta and JME sees the crowd explode in a way that would have been the peak of most bands’ sets. Stormzy closes with ‘Know Me From’, initially cutting the track dead after the WhatsApp notification dings out, circle pits collapsing in on themselves. Crowd in hand, he thanks them for the response he’s got for his first festival appearance, and that would seem like the night pretty much sewn up, if it weren’t for the masterclass that Skepta and JME follow on with. It’s a set packed with hardened bangers – ‘That’s Not Me’, ‘Too Many Man’, ‘Don’t @ Me’ – dealt out with stage lip-hanging energy from JME and guests Jammer and Shorty. Skepta, meanwhile, makes the whole thing seem effortless, and the sheer, unadulterated burst of energy that follows after "man’s never been in Brighton when it’s shutdown" is easily one of the best moments of the festival’s three days. Laurie Tuffrey

8:58, Boyce’s Street, Saturday

Irish pub The Fiddler’s Elbow are used to throwing street parties on St Patrick’s Day, and for The Great Escape they’ve blocked the narrow Boyce’s Street off once again for a full day of guests, including Brighton rock stalwarts The Xcerts and newbies Tigercub. As night draws in, Paul Hartnoll (still pleasingly wearing his Orbital specs) headlines the tiny garden gazebo stage with his 8:58 project. While 8:58’s album drew in guest vocals from Cillian Murphy, Robert Smith and The Unthanks, it’s art rock singer Fable who joins in tonight for her turn on the pinging ‘Cemetery’. Rabbit-eared hen parties on their way to the commercial clubs of West Street weave a disorientated path through the crowd as Hartnoll caps his set by dropping ‘Chime’. And, as any rave veteran knows, there’s no topping that. Stuart Huggett

Drenge, The Hare & Hounds, Saturday

Rounding off the Alternative Escape’s weekend at the top of an ear-shearing bill, which also took in second performances from Bad Breeding and Girl Band, are Drenge. The sweat is dripping off the walls at The Hare & Hounds and the band’s scuzzy, dark backwoods broilers are a fine catalyst for end-of-festival cutting loose, a constant loop of increasingly tattered-looking stage divers (joined, after the final song, by the band’s singer and guitarist Eoin Loveless) making their best efforts to ensure that everyone is a little perspiration-doused. ‘Bloodsports’ grinder of a riff remains absolutely undimmed, as does the heavyweight, goliath ‘Let’s Pretend’, eking out every last drop of energy (and bodily fluid) the crowd possesses. Laurie Tuffrey

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