Travels With Clarence: The Great Escape, Brighton, UK – 13th-15th May, 2010

Every May the music industry’s global movers and shakers descend upon the quaint British seaside town of Brighton for Europe’s leading festival for new music, The Great Escape. With over three hundred and fifty bands packed into thirty venues over three days, there was no shortage this year of fresh new global acts to discover. Add to this an array of music lectures, interviews, networking events, parties and we have ourselves one ‘well fit’ industry bash… innit.

As well as a hearty line-up from the USA, Canada and Europe, the festival boasted showcases from as far and wide as Iceland, India, New Zealand and Norway. As this year’s ‘lead country’, Australian music had the most notable presence, with acts such as Paul Dempsey, Philadelphia Grand Jury, Art vs Science, Sarah Blasko and Dappled Cities reppin’ it for our homeland and solidifying themselves amongst the world’s best ‘new’ acts. More on this later!

Despite being advertised as a three day event, TGE sneakily kicked off one night early, with an event called ‘Best of Brighton’, featuring… you guessed it, Brighton’s best new acts. Ukulele-toting solo folk artist Sophie Madeleine and ska flavoured, sharply dressed indie kids Sweet Sweet Lies warmed up the industry-heavy crowd underground at Jam bar. Closing act Pope Joan, with experimental Brit-art-pop resonances and one killer moustached front man, set an appropriately excitable and innovative tone for the days to come.

Despite the bizarrely cold pre-summer weather I’d been experiencing since my arrival in this dreary country, the sun came out on Thursday and shone for the beginning of the ‘Relentless Street Gigs’. A series of outdoor and impromptu sets from the likes of Violent Soho and Funeral Party ensued, with a shitload of free energy drink (sponsorship ain’t all bad) and some gnarly ‘venue’ choices including the sewer system under the famous Brighton Pier, which played host to acoustic-ska outfit The King Blues.

Across town in the picturesque Brighton ‘Dome’ (built for the Prince of Wales in the 1800s), the conference part of the festival was kicking off, giving the behind-the-scenes stars of the music industry the chance to rock the mic right. Bill Cullen (Sarah Blasko, Kate Miller Heidke), Jaime Gough (Native Tongue Music Publishing), Catherine Haridy (Eskimo Joe), Scot Morris (APRA/AMCOS), Danny Rogers (Laneway, Temper Trap) were some of Australian industry professionals imparting their wisdom to the international crowd of delegates. Seminars continued all week, with appearances by Francis Keeling (Vice President, Digital, Universal), John Niven (author), Korda Marshall (Infectious), Nick Kent (journalist), Simon Fox (CEO, HMV), Lord Tim Clement-Jones (Liberal Democrat Spokesman for Culture and Media) and more. Industry speed dating and other networking events like French Music Office Party, Catalan! Music Party and the Sounds of Australia Luncheon also filled the week, getting the 500+ industry delegates nice and loose before the beginning of the evening showcases.

Faced with an intense number of hot tipped sets to come, a few drinks were imperative before heading out in the crisp seaside air to tackle the onslaught of music.

There was a heavy buzz surrounding King Charles, no, not the Price of Wales, but a much smaller-eared, bigger-sounding king of quirky, classical indie-country cool. He took to The Queens Hotel (I think the festival bookers were ‘avin a larf) with a performance of, well, royal standards. Sharply dressed and armed with a series of eloquently penned tunes about the intricacies of lurrrve, he made all the girls and boys sigh.

Closer to the water, Tineh Tempah ripped up The Fly Stage at The Brighton Coalition. The charismatic, tea drinking twenty one year old hip hop / grime artist from suburban London has been hailed as the next big thing to come out of the UK urban scene. New York’s White Rabbits had showcased their super percussive soul-punk earlier and neighbour Darwin Deez incited crowd mania during his obscure set next door at Digital, in which an audience member ripped the cord from the stage leading to an onslaught of boo-ing and reprimands from the man himself. This didn’t deter the electro-rocking New Yorker, continuing his set and closing with a choreographed rendition of ‘Single Ladies’. Oooh yeah.

Back across town, San Francisco eleven piece Still Flyin’ raised the roof at The Freebutt. Despite some sound issues, it was their penchant for on-stage parties and front man Sean Rawls’ charismatic banter that saved the day, with many a converted new fan leaving the dingy venue with a new tap in their step. Fellow San Franciscans The Dodos set a bit of a different rhythmic pace with a percussion heavy set at the Komedia, whilst the pensive but strong ballads of Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan put his recordings to shame, with a brilliantly raw live set at Terraces.

Finally, we hit up the biggest venue of the festival, the looming Corn Exchange, a vast concert hall, part of the royal Dome complex, and incidentally the setting for ABBA’s Eurovision win in 1974 (oh the trivia one discovers over a pint with a Brit). This time hosted by NME, the venue packed out early for Floridian indie rock outfit Surfer Blood, followed by the bracingly guitar heavy styles of UK’s The Cribs. It seemed like the entire town turned up to see these guys, with heavy lines forming outside… either that or they were Eurovision stragglers coming down from a thirty six year acid trip? Either way, it seemed that only half the crowd were actually interested in their set, the other half milling around the packed bar, keen to start their TGE in a bleary eyed haze, gurgling along to whatever song they knew best. Despite an energetic and well-received live set, I couldn’t help but notice a certain stylistic inconsistency between songs. Indie-rock with a vague pop sensibility, but verging on hardcore..? Yeah, I didn’t get it either. Ah well, no one will remember tomorrow it seems. (Which is perhaps why they showed up on the beach to play a surprise acoustic set for MTV the very next day).

Between day-time sets (Blackchords, Pony Pony Run Run, Dappled Cities, Lets Go To War) on Friday, I popped my head back into The Dome’s conference room to see Australian artist/producer/general enigma Nick Littlemore speak to The Fly Magazine’s Niall Doherty about his most recent projects and philosophies. It seems the missing other half of Empire of The Sun has escaped the southern hemisphere to record the newest, apparently more poppier PNAU album and work on the soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Pretty darn good excuses for missing a few festivals in Australia if you ask me.

Paul Dempsey and Eskimo Joe held up the flag for Aussies that night, Leeds’ Wild Beasts banged their bongos hard at their Pavillion Theatre headline show, supported by veteran Brooklyn indie darlings Fiery Furnances. BRIT Award winner and all round sweetheart Ellie Goulding pulled an impossibly heavy crowd at Concorde 2, heralding the beginning of a fast rise for what’s soon to be England’s newest indie pop starlet.

Earlier on, having been cut short due to time restrictions, Californian femme-lead and downright dreamy quartet Warpaint lived up to their experimental nature with a spontaneous acoustic street performance, much to the delight of an awaiting outdoor crowd. Back inside and headlining the NME stage at probably the coolest venue of the festival, Horatio’s bar (situated literally over the water) were the young and much hyped Frankie & The Heartstrings. The pier was pumping, with the festive Friday night crowd spilling out onto the street to take advantage of the clear starry night and abundance of music and parties.

Dodging a hectic outdoor set by YouTube famous The Midnight Beast (a group of pimply teenage boys shrouded in a wall of screaming girls, cockney-rapping about lesbians and covering Ke$ha songs) I eventually made it to the impossibly trendy Audio on the esplanade in time to catch The Futureheads playing on a massive MTV-style constructed outdoor super-stage, with raised platforms for each band member, cameras on cranes and intense corporate trade marking all over the shop (the gig was called ‘Levi’s one to watch’, go figure). Personally, I think the initial over production, lack of proper outdoor sound equipment and the fact that their real fans were watching from yards away outside the venue (due to a tight ass industry guest list) drew attention away from the actual music. At least they had nice jeans on.

Although I missed their sets due to severe system overload (300+ bands in three days, come on!) it was rumoured that synth duo Hurts, indie belle I Blame Coco and electro popsters Chew Lips were the stand out newcomers of the night, drawing impressive crowds and reviews at their respective showcases. Closing a massive day of new live music was Manchester’s Delphic, turning The Corn Exchange into a steamy, technofied dance floor.

Saturday May 15 saw a select group of Aussie artists take on beach-side venue Digital for The Aussie BBQ showcase, made famous in Austin’s SXSX as a feeding ground for the best in new Australian music. Melbourne’s Blackchords and Brisbane’s Hungry Kids of Hungary kicked off the show to an intense midday crowd. Eventually the venue was packed to capacity, with lines of festival heads straining their ears for a hint of the inside action… or perhaps they were just desperate for a free sausage. Bluejuice rocked the small stage, playing about twenty bpm above their normal pace, a factor they later attributed to sheer nerves. Co-frontman Jake Stone took his love of sound guys to the next (and very public) level, showing his affection by an impromptu make out sesh with the unsuspecting engineer who walked on stage to fix a cord. Remember, it’s not rape if you yell ‘surprise’ Jake.

Dappled Cities had some different kind of fun with an inflatable dolphin during their otherwise sonically complex and brooding set. Bridezilla’s ethereal stage attire and whimsically orchestral folk-pop tunes impressed, whilst trendoid five piece teenagersintokyo, with immaculate lipstick and fashion straight out of a Frankie magazine, represented our country with style despite now calling London home.

It seems that food-centric showcases were the flavour of the weekend, with ‘It Came From Japan’s’ sushi platters (featuring Lillies and Remains, Sunset Drive and Natccu) and Canada’s ‘M pour Montreal’ brunch amongst some of the hotly talked about showcases of the festival.

M may be for Montreal, but it also stands for Muffin. Quebec psych-folk-rock quintet Final Flash played a tight brunch-time set, incorporating ambient bird songs between tunes in their tight, captivating live performance. They were followed by the philosophically titled disco outfit, Think About Life, whose on stage energy and catchy tunes picked me up more than all those free cups of French-Canadian coffee.

Fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene rocked out for their mother country even harder at The Corn Exchange. A few hours later, hitting the same venue with the massive accolade of being the support slot for festival headliners Groove Armada were Sydney’s own dynamic dance-punk trio Art vs Science, in their first international tour. Dominating the large stage, they made an intense first impression, pulling out all their frenzied, acrobatic, simultaneous-beer skolling-guitar-shredding tricks to entertain the waiting crowd. Next door, drum’n’bass speaker warriors Chase & Status exploded at The Dome, Marina & The Diamonds injected some sweet Welsh-indie style into Concorde 2 and Angus & Julia Stone won over the folk-happy Brits with tunes from their new album. Back at Digital, buzz band and venue headliners The Big Pink were cut short due to time constraints, but managed to fit crowd pleaser ‘Dominos’ in at the end, a track that ironically doesn’t reflect much of the band’s other, darker, bass-heavy repertoire.

Heat was rising from the packed crowd in Brighton’s vast concern hall by the time legendary UK dance moguls Groove Armada bounded on stage, closing the festival with a stylish late night set. Incorporating new material, lasers, heavy vocals, glitter unitards, multi-instrumentals and multiple encores, they played to rapturous applause and the conceivable hysteria that comes with closing a three (and a half) day festival to crowd of boozy fans and musos.

But the night didn’t end there. Being primarily an industry-heavy event meant that it was time for the musicians to go to bed, and the real rock stars to come out of the woodwork. It was like a tour for the industry suits, and what happens on tour… (well, you get the idea). The Queens Hotel, located a stones throw away from the iconic Brighton Pier, was the setting for an all night industry party. Managers, bookers, bands, fans, journalists, TGE staff and everyone else associated with the festival (or not), took over the palatial building, with murmurs of wild room parties circulating each floor and sightings of the likes of Mighty Boosh and Babyshambles members. By 6am, there was a decent, albeit bleary eyed crew gathered at the foot of the pier to take in the sunrise and bask in the post-chaos that signalled the end to an epic week of music, seminars and networking.

Rock stars ain’t the only ones who can party. But they sure play some dope tunes.

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