Is it still a great escape? The Great Escape 2022
After train problems, leading to a much extended trip down to Brighton from Hertfordshire. It was a quick check-in before heading off to grab my wristband for the long overdue Great Escape. It was three years, almost to the day, since I purchased my ticket for what was originally going to be the 15th Anniversary of the first Great Escape. So even with the bad journey. It was a relief to finally be in Brighton for a weekend away from work.
I had some remote hope I had a photo pass waiting even though we hadn’t received notification, as Down At The Front had some email issues leading up to the festival. But no luck. We weren’t on the list. Another year where we would be limiting ourselves to venues where we knew we would be safe take in our cameras.
As is customary, we headed down to Brighton on Wednesday. As we experienced this time, it is the sensible choice if you want to catch all the music and not worry about how well the trains run. Sadly, this year, Brighton has got even more expensive than it was pre-lockdown and it was already stupidly expensive then. The extra day really does make things a lot more expensive. Usually there are events happening the night before the festival starts that help justify the extra cost. But this year was light on interest and I did wonder if it was really worth the extra cost just just for the Thursday afternoon.
Pretty much the only thing happening in Brighton was the Alt-Alt Escape Opening Party at the Green Door Store. The opening party had some decent music on show. ELLiS.D started the evening of well with his psychy rock with a touch of glam theatrics thrown in.
Another standout was The Kitterns. Just good, uncomplicated indie
CIEL, who many caught during the TGE and raved about, were also on the bill. They were very entertaining with some catchy songs, especially their single ‘Fine Everything’. Although they didn’t light my fire, I will happily catch them again.
As this was the first night of my first real break since pre-lockdown. I decided to head off to find a grab some food, find a pub and hunker down for the evening. Really disappointedly, Brighton was dead. Restaurants seemed to close by 11 and my usual late night pubs were closed by midnight. I did find a pub open until 1am, but my usual approach of watching bands and to not really starting to drink until about 11ish, meant that I was waking up for the rest of the festival with a clear head.
In many ways this was a different festival for me. I am not sure how others felt about it. I don’t think I was ready for this year’s Great Escape. Normally, I wake up (with a hangover) and go for a long walk down the sea front, grab some breakfast and head to the first gig on the bill. Since catching COVID at Christmas (luckily, no symptoms), I found my exercise has reduced after my calf pinged (twice). Meanwhile, I have relaxed and been out to the pub a lot more. Essentially, I am not in the best physical shape I have been. Unfortunately for me, my calf tightened again the day before the festival and I decided I had to be sensible. I couldn’t rush around doing stupid things like power walking from Horatio’s to the Green Door Store. For much of the festival I planned short routes between venues. Avoiding gambling on walking across town to venues that might be busy and that have no nearby backup venues. My step count was about 50% down on a normal TGE.
Starting the first day off as I was to continue the festival. I decide to have a relaxed start in Komedia Studio with Telenova, rather than rushing off to the first venue that opened, like I normally do. The room was already packed by the time I got there. I found a space midway in the room and listened to a few enjoyable songs of breezy indie pop, before heading down stairs to catch High School who sadly didn’t do much for me.
Music Scotland were holding one of their regular showcases at the nearby One Church. Featuring Memes and Kathryn Joseph, I thought I would ease myself into the festival and headed the short way up to the church. Opening was Blair Davie, a singer songwriter with songs exploring his identity. It was all fine but a little introspective for me.
Memes followed. I had seen them a few weeks earlier supporting Benefits. I liked their set the first time and enjoyed it even more a second. Garage post-punk. Memes are just two people. Lots of bass, complementing a drum machine that drive each song forward, with the singer barking the lines. There is a bit of an industrial feel to it at times and remarkably dancy.
After a brief, but uninteresting trip up to the Alt-Escape at the Laines Brewhouse. I headed back to see Kathryn Joseph and her distinctive voice. She seems to have gone all Taylor Swift with a new album of songs about failed relationships. She was completely engaging, with lots of self-deprecating humour about each song. It was a lovely set.
This was pretty much the afternoon over and I realised I hadn’t really seen much new music and decided that for the rest of the festival I would only try and catch new artists and headed back to my hotel room to grab some refreshments.
The evenings at The Great Escape usually consist of queue. Although Thursdays often aren’t too bad and I hoped that would be the case tonight.
I decided it was time to give Chalk a try. I had a soft spot for The Haunt, so was unhappy when it closed. The new space isn’t bad. It gives Brighton a bigger venue and The Haunt is somewhere in the heavily remodelled bigger Chalk space. I was there to see Medicine Cabinet. The lead singer, looked like an escapee from a Final Fantasy game and guitarist looked like an escapee from CHIPS (there’s one for the kids). They clearly didn’t take themselves too seriously. Definitely at the pop end of the indie scale. While fun to watch. They didn’t do too much for me.
First of a few missteps at the TGE. English Teacher were on my list to catch. They were playing the nearby Latest Bar. I should have headed there earlier. But I stayed to catch the whole of Medicine Cabinet’s set.
Arriving at the latest bar I found there was already a long queue. I should have just left and moved on. But I waited and actually got to the door before they told people it was at capacity. The security guard seeing I was on my own, did actually sneak me in. Unfortunately, this just allowed me to join a second queue in the bar area as downstairs was rammed and at capacity. From past experience, it is not a pleasant space when it is full and I finally saw sense and decided to head off. There shouldn’t be queues like this on a Thursday. Sadly this was an experience repeated throughout the festival.
There was a decent double bill at Komedia with the Folly Group and Billy Nomates. I knew it was likely Billy would have a long queue and the sensible choice would be to queue for her, as I would really like to see her in a smallish venue. Instead I decided to catch Folly Group first, catching the tail end of French band District Five who create music with a fusion of influences from jazz and indie. They were really quite good.
I really liked the Folly Group’s recent EP and live that nervous energy is there. While fitting into the generic post-punk descriptor. Like Squid, they have a singing drummer and angular guitars. Unfortunately the singer was hidden at the back of the stage behind a haze of smoke. They probably should push the drums to the front of the stage to give him a more staring role.
Sadly after the Folly Group had finished, the queue for Billy was long and the venue was at capacity. I waited for an about 10 minutes but the queue didn’t move. Worse, the delegate’s queue was increasing in size and I knew they would be let in first. These delegates queues are becoming a problem The Great Escape is going to have to solve if it isn’t to collapse under its own weight and push out us normal festival goers.
It seemed this year the Great Escape conference was bigger than it has ever been. In many ways this should be a good thing. However, there were hip middle-class delegates everywhere. I don’t remember it being this way in the past. But if the conference is going to be useful, it has to find a way to be more accessible and not just a conference for University-graduate, young, white, middle-class adults. That’s pretty much the whole problem with the music industry at the moment. It has to try harder not to be Shoreditch-on-sea.
This year, delegates had separate queues at most venues and these allowed them to by-pass the general queue, giving them priority. This is a sign The Great Escape is starting to edge towards being the UK’s version of SXSW, when due to it’s location it is simply is a pale impersonator.
Unfortunately, Austin is set up so much better for forced venue hoping than Brighton is. Also, Austin actually makes an effort to support SXSW. Most TGE’s outside of the venues, I wouldn’t really know there was the UK’s premier new music festival taking place. The council seem to make no effort to support it and local business don’t seem to embrace it. I guess it is because of how popular it is as a holiday destination they don’t have to chase after the TGE punters.
When combined with what seemed like an increase in standard festival goers, queues were worse than ever this year. And with nothing done to stop the spread of venues leading to an ever reducing venue density. Choosing the wrong venue means missing a good chuck of music each evening. At SXSW there are 20 other venues within 15 minutes walk. This is not the case in Brighton and after missing Billy, I headed to the next venue, only to have to join another queue at a venue that usually doesn’t have them. It was a good 40 minutes before I saw the next act. TGE really needs to up the number of venues and have bands play multiple times across the city, increasing the chances of seeing the buzzy bands or stumbling across your new favourite band.
After more queuing at usually quiet venues, I headed up to see Hamish Hawk at Brighthelm. I have never seen a queue at this place and thankfully there was no issue getting in to see what turned out to be a really fun set and one of my highlights of the festival.
Friends had seen Hamish play the week before and recommended I catch him. Whether intentional or not, there is more than a touch of Neil Hannon about Hamish and that is not a bad thing. Hamish was fun and engaging. My highlight of the day.
After Hamish, I decided to catch one more band and then head off for a drink and to process photos. So picking a venue I expected I would be able to get in I headed to catch Grace Cummings at Komedia’s Studio venue.
Often at these festivals you see bands stressed out as they rush around and having to set up quickly at a new venue. tI was great to see a very relaxed Grace Cummings and her band. Lots of smiles and fooling around as they set up. I have to admit I had already decided what her voice would sound like before she started, so was pleasantly surprised to find she has a proper rock blues voice, the kind you don’t hear too often from male or female singers. Her music was I guess blues rock. But there was the occasional country blues tone and also some pschy guitars. I was pleasantly surprised.
After Grace I decided to head off and find a beer. But like the previous night, not much was open outside of the festival and it was another relatively early night.
Waking up without a hangover was a nice change. I grabbed my first ‘full-English’ in probably three years while perusing the day’s schedule. Friday was the best day on paper. Lots of the bands who broke during the previous two years were playing today. Many of whom, I have already seen and who were bound to be the day’s big draws. But I decided I would stick to my plan and avoid these bands and try and only catch new bands for the rest of the festival.
Looking at the early options. There was an enticing double bill of Irish post punk at the Prince Albert. Arriving to see long queues wasn’t a good sign for the day ahead and this was the first of many queues this day.
Starting the day were The Clockworks. One of the many great post punk Irish bands following on the heals of the Fontaines. They impressed the early crowd, who many like me, were here for the Sprints. I believe the bands has moved to London. So definitely one to watch.
Another highlight for the festival were Sprints. Sprints are at the shouty end of post punk. Lots of attitude and energy and great front person. They put in the perfect festival set. It was clear to see why they already have an ardent falling.
Heading off into the early afternoon sun, there were already queues outside some of the venues. Unusual for a Friday afternoon. So I again headed to the One Church for another afternoon of Scottish music. It is also close to the alt-Escapes Laines Brewhouse venue, which had been empty the day before. So I knew I could nip out and catch another band or two.
Up first were Dead Pony. They have a classic Scottish Indie rock sound with lots of energy. Very popular with the crowd and fun to photograph but in all honesty, the Scottish indie sound doesn’t quite tick the boxes for me. I prefer my rock to me a little more post-punk at the moment.
Following Dead Pony was Alex Amor. The guide suggested that she was a flautist. A flautist at a predominantly indie festival sounded interesting. Unfortunately, her sound wasn’t indie or classical. It was more pop music with the flute hardly used and when it was, it seemed crowbarred into songs. Sadly, this performance didn’t work for me.
The rest of the afternoon really didn’t work either. I dipped in and out of the Alt-Escape. But nothing jumped out. So I headed back to my hotel room for a break from what was starting to become a very busy Brighton.
Heading to Chalk again to start the evening. A young Scottish artist, Bonnie Kempley played a nervous, but endearing set to the early crowd bedding down to catch a strong evening of music at Chalk. But I decide to stick with my plan to see new artists and headed off to St Mary’s Church.
Arriving at St Mary’s, Yama Warsashi was finishing off her set. From the song I heard, she sounds like somebody to catch in future.
Friends had recommended Maarja Nuut, an electronic artist who filled the church with many ‘found sounds’. It was pleasant but there wasn’t much that really grabbed me.
I still hadn’t had a drink by this point and I decided that I might as well hunker down at the BBC showcase rather than join another queue. It would mean catching a band I had seen before, but it was better than trying to get into busy venues. (It wasn’t a good start when I realised the venue only had larger!)
Beginning with duo Dark Tropics, with their gothy cinematic pop. It was all very theatrical. But the sound was a bit weak. Too reliant on backing tracks. They probably should beef up the sound with a bassist and drummer.
That can’t be said for the next band, one I saw a few months ago and who greatly impressed me, Deadletter. Enhancing the traditional post-punk guitar line up with a saxophonist. They immediately have a dynamic that separates them from the other post-punk artists. Add to that their explosive front-man Zac, alongside several observant songs. I really feel this band has the talent to hit the mainstream and it was clear Steve Lamacq was a big fan too. With a terrible Tory government in power, I love how there are bands on the scene again who have something to say about the issues we are all facing and not just focused on love and breakup songs.
The reason for sticking at the BBC event was to catch Opus Kink. Another band making waves for their live shows. Thanking the audience for not heading off to Warmduscher, there was some similarity between their sound and Duscher’s. They maybe lack the humour that permeates Warmduscher. But there was no denying that they put on a very good show. Worth catching at a festival.
After Opus, some unsuccessful attempts at getting into busy venues, I finally ended up waiting for an artist, who when they finally tuned up on stage, were so bad, I left after one song. I decided to call it a day and headed into what had become a very busy Brighton to find a quieter pub for a few beers.
I have to admit, Saturday didn’t look like a good lineup and my calf was still playing up and with expectation of long queues throughout the day, I decided to take it relatively easy. For me, this year’s TGE didn’t feel completely normal. Brighton was busier than I have ever seen it. The good weather dragging many down from London for a day out. I think Brighton is being hit by the wedding catchup that is happening at the moment. There were more hen and stag groups than ever. Let us be honest, hen and stag groups just make places unpleasant. By this point, I wasn’t really feeling the love for Brighton and this had a knock-on effect of my enjoyment of TGE this year.
Deciding it was worth risking TGE’s own beach venue with the small amount of camera equipment I had with me. I headed off to the Aussie afternoon, one of my favourite ‘country’ showcases at SXSW (a close second behind the the UKs). Their version at TGE is never as well financed, so lacks the beer and snacks, but they usually have a great lineup.
I was really there for The Lazy Eyes who were on my list to catch in 2020 and are one of the few bands to make it to the delayed festival. While VAANS with their straight forward rock and did little for me. Singer songwriter, Didirri, a late addition, offered an engaging and impressive set filling in the gap before The Lazy Eyes.
The popularity of psych seems to be waining. But that hasn’t dampened The Lazy Eyes enthusiasm and they clearly won over the early afternoon crowd with an energetic set that featured possibly the quickest setup of a piano I have ever seen, that was like a bit of performance art. Very fun to watch.
The rest of the day was pretty unsuccessful for of both queues and my musical choices. But that’s not unusual for the Saturday at TGE. I have learnt not to get wound up by it.
In the case of Unschooling, I had no way of knowing they were going to be effected by poor sound quality. Clearly a band I would enjoy a lot in a better venue. They suffered from the worst sound I have heard at a gig for years. With the band asking if they sounded as awful in the audience, as they did on stage. This highlights the challenge TGE has, which as I mention in every TGE review, SXSW doesn’t suffer from. While Austin is wall to wall venues. Brighton has less option. Obviously trying to find new venues, TGE opted to use Revenge, a gay club with a sound system that probably is fine for the Drag Queens who seem to dominate their events listening, but didn’t work for noisy rock music. The sound system just made the band sound muddy and that isn’t fair on the band.
After an unsuccessful evening of more poor musical choices (the risk with avoiding the bands you know you will enjoy), I decided to finish early. Catching a really enjoyable set from Swim School at a packed Prince Albert. I then decided I would finish and grab some beers and find something to eat. But true to form for this weekend. It turns out pretty much all restaurants in Brighton are still closing by 11pm and I just walked between closed restaurants. Eventually heading into the town only to find many of the pubs looked like a stag and hen armageddon. I am not ready to be in packed pubs full of stag parties. So I called it quits and headed back to my hotel room. This is the first TGE where I ended up in my hotel room at midnight on the Saturday.
So was this a successful TGE?
In all honesty, this is probably my poorest TGE experience and a lot of it was down to me. I still really enjoyed finally being back at a city music festival. I had really missed this. While I currently lack the fitness for the weekend, Brighton isn’t back to normal yet and the cost of staying in Brighton seems to have gone through the roof. These aren’t problems TGE can fix. However, the venue spread that has been steadily getting worse, is under their control. Likewise, they can control the number of delegates and the rules around access. But equally, it is great seeing the conference side take off. It is probably good for the music industry. I do wonder if TGE is now close to outgrowing Brighton and that it might have to refocus itself as a festival that serves the Industry, rather than a festival for punters. However, despite my disappointment, I have already purchased my ticket for next year and booked a ridiculously expensive hotel room. Hopefully myself and Brighton are back to our best and TGE somehow does something increasing the number of venues and reduces the spread.