The Great Escape 2023
Arriving early on Wednesday, I thought I would start the festival in a different way, heading to see Yuanfan Yang play the Brighton Festival before check-in. Pieces by Mozart, Rachmaninov and Bartök were closed by some deft improvisation with Yuanfan improvised songs in various styles suggested by the audience.
After checked-in, I headed off to grab my badge. Last year I was off the pace, with issues with my calf muscles reducing my mobility. They have mainly held up since then. My only concern this year was the perennial size of the queues. Would 2023 continue the trend of turning paying music fans into second-class citizens, while the ‘off on a jolly to the seaside on work’s expenses’ crowd get preferential treatment?
Heading up to the Green Door Store for a few of the sets at one of the alt-Escape opening parties, for some reason. I found the venue unbearably hot and decided to head off for a beer and a quiet night. Before leaving I managed to catch three acts. The highlight, Porchlight. With that kind of anarchic Squid sound, popular at the moment. They put on an excellent show. But I decided to bail and save my energy for the full festival.
This year I spent more time planning who I was going to see. But as is usual, the plan didn’t hold up in reality. The day started off at the Prince Albert for Katie Phelan playing the Irish showcase. The curse of being on first. Katie Phelan suffered from sound issues. Though in fairness, I don’t think it was the sound engineer’s fault. I think Katie forgot to change her battery in her acoustic guitar and the sound engineer had to quickly mic up the guitar. But this is what festivals are for. They help artists deal with the logistics. Musically, it was a fairly standard singer-songwriter fair. Lots of little reflective vignettes. Pleasant, but focused on young concerns.
Reb Fountain at the North Lane Brewery was my first discovery. Her music blended elements of folk, blues, rock, pop, even a bit goth at times. Reb’s vocals are rich, bluesy and at times sultry. I was really impressed by her and caught her playing the Lexington on the way home.
Up at the Hope and Ruin, Cowboyy continued to impress with their intricate math rock. More intricate music and dare I say it, prog, appears to be rearing its head again as kids bore of the post-punk sound that has dominated the last few years. Cowboyy intricate math rock is definitely worth catching.
But the post-punk revival hasn’t yet died. Surfing on the tail end of the revival and one of the best bands of the revival, Deadletter played the inappropriate Music Venue Trust Airstream stage down at the beach. I always photograph them in black and white and their music suits the dark. Seeing them in daylight somehow feels wrong. Luckily, they were still as good as always. Zac, as usual, went out into the crowd midway through the set. Being a festival set, they concentrated on all their most crowd-friendly songs.
The sound on the MVT stage was pretty poor all weekend. It is the nature of outdoor venues. However, it is unforgivable for the sound engineer to make things worse. Sadly Coach Party experienced an unacceptably bad sound. For some unknown reason, the sound engineer failed to notice the first song and part of the second song had no vocals. It probably won’t affect Coach Party, they already have a pretty dedicated fan base. But please TGE don’t let this happen again. This is a showcase for many artists. As you would expect, Coach Party’s infectious indie pop registered strongly with the afternoon crowd and the perfect breezy accompaniment to a sunny day on the beach
The evening was dominated by queues. But I did manage to see two great acts, the visceral Benefits I have covered numerous times. Playing the One Church. Kingsley’s sermon was received by a willing congregation. It was great to see such a positive reaction to what could be a hard festival sell.
Second standout of the evening was Lael Neale. I had tickets to see her at the Lexington the following week. I hoped I would catch her here, find her average and have an evening off to regain post-festival sleep. No chance. The album has been on heavy rotation and live, was just as beautiful. Many of the delicately crafted songs were played on an old omnichord and Lael’s swilling of her fingers around its pad, weirdly mesmeric.
For the rest of the evening, it was a case of finding any venue I could get into. In the end I decided to grab a few beers. While Brighton is more open than last year, many of my favourite pubs were still closing relatively early on week nights. Sad to see things are still catching up to pre-COVID times.
Friday started off with something different with Annie Taylor rocking out at Komedia Studio. Good old fashioned unreformed blues rock with lots of blue denim on show. Annie and band put on an energetic fun set. Not really my thing anymore. But still fun.
The second Benefits set was slightly more surreal than the previous evening in a church with Kingsley and co disturbing the beachgoers at the MVT stage. Sound continued to be an issue with vocals too low in the mix. It was good to see a significant number stayed to enjoy their set. You either love this band or you hate them. With this band there is no compromise.
The rest of the afternoon was particularly unsuccessful. Some of the bigger draws had long queues. I managed to squeeze into the Shipwright’s Yard to hear an excellent set from Pale Blue Eyes. Unless you are at the front you can’t see the band playing inside the garage. I have a fondness for this makeshift ‘venue’. TGE needs more of these pop-up venues.
My unsuccessful afternoon led to me deciding to grab a beer in the relatively empty Mesmerist and listen to what they had scheduled for the Alt-Escape. Listed on their board was ‘Sleeper’ playing in 30 minutes time. Could it be that Sleeper? Amazingly it was and the acoustic set they played was rather good. They all seemed so relaxed and at ease with each other. It was a joy to watch.
Given the difficulty of getting into venues, I decided to head for St Mary’s Church to catch FDR who I had heard good things about. JFDR didn’t do that much for me. But I caught the last 10 minutes of Penelope Trapes’s impressive dark brooding set accompanied by some excellent atmospheric lighting.
As the church is 15 minutes walk from the nearest venue. I decided to stay there for the next act. Once I left venue it was after 10pm and the rest of the evening was a bit of a miss. Everywhere I headed to was busy or I simply wasn’t interested in walking half the length of the town to find the queues.
Saturday was unlike any recent Great Escape. With a rail strike, there was a reduced train service to Brighton. The usual weekend hordes that descend on Brighton stayed away and many of the TGE audience who usually catch the late night Saturday trains back from Brighton (to avoid the ridiculously expensive Saturday night hotel prices) disappeared mid afternoon. Saturday was actually the most pleasant TGE for years. There were few queues to be seen and Brighton itself was relatively quiet. This is what TGE needs to be like all the time and closer to what it was like when I first started.
Saturday started well. Anna B Savage and band played a beautiful set upstairs at Patterns. It all seemed effortless from her and her band. I’m not completely sold on her distinctive vocals when she plays a full set. They start to become a bit wearing as I find her vocals after a certain point seems like an affectation. But these short festival sets have the opposite effect. Distinctive and rich, they add some spice to the day and Anna’s set really hit the mark.
The next band on my agenda wasn’t on for another hour. So I decided to head there via Volks for an interestingly named Rainbow Frog Biscuit. I think I walked into a parallel world of rainbows and unicorns and sugary candy floss pop. The kind of pop created by somebody who has grown up singing Frozen songs in front of the mirror. I’m not sure the 6Music audience is her target audience. But what a great voice she had. While very stagey, it suited her materials. Sadly, it was very much not my thing.
PABST at The Prince Albert offered up 90s inspired grunge rock. Energetically performed by the three piece band. A palette cleanser after Rainbow Frog Biscuit. Usually, The Prince Albert is rammed and unbearably hot on the Saturday afternoon. This year, it was pleasant making it easier to enjoy the band but a little bit more difficult for the band to get the audience participation they maybe hoped for when they asked us to form a circle and mosh.
At Chalk, Flossing, the project of Heather Elle, Bodega’s old bass player, reminded me a lot of Jenny Beth’s post-Savages work. Heather cutting a confident, strong, no-nonsense stage presence. The music is equally as confident and direct. The electro-industrial sound accompanied by strong lighting really worked well. One of my highlights of the festival
Over at a packed Revenge, Butch Kassidy had started their set. Unable to get anywhere near the stage I watched some heads bobbing up and down in the distance to a thunderous heavy psych rock soundtrack. These guys are good. This was probably my favourite set of the festival. I need to catch them in a smaller venue where I can see them too.
Unusually for a Saturday night at TGE. I didn’t decide to stick to one venue. The lack of queues at many venues meant I managed to catch a few more acts before calling it a day. Pencil, featuring a whole host of familiar faces were interesting and I will no doubt catch them again. Closing the evening at Brighthelm and my festival, Anna Wolf put on a great festival show that perfectly capped off my festival.
Was this a successful TGE? Not really. I was surprised by Reb Fountain and I managed to catch a few artists who’ve been on my list for a while such as Flossing and Butch Kassidy. But the buzz bands were the buzz bands last year and I didn’t get anywhere near seeing them due to the queues. I think we are still seeing the effects of the pandemic. Most bands weathered the lockdowns. But the lockdowns seem to have affected the pipeline of new bands. I guess we will see them slowly appearing as the music scenes around the country build up their momentum again. But overall, I think the quality was an improvement on last year.
I’m in a quandary about my continued engagement with TGE. As a music review / photography site we aren’t big enough to get photo passes. That’s fair enough, we are small or is that ‘boutique’? While we have already grabbed an early-bird ticket for 2024. I’m not sure TGE is value for money anymore. As standard festival ticket holders, we are now second-class citizens. I arrived early on Friday and Saturday to get to the front at a venue as they opened, to then have the delegates waltz up five minutes before doors and walk in before me. Throughout the weekend they had priority in queuing situations. Why is this the case? They paid for a conference which comes with a TGE music pass. They shouldn’t have priority for the live music part. Many haven’t paid a dime for the tickets. Their companies have. Why do paying customers get handled as we do? It is getting to the point where you see more music by sticking to a single venue and if that’s the case, some of the free events have higher quality day line-ups. The joy of this type of festival is being able to move around and see new artists.
I guess my main issue is the cost of staying in Brighton. I have always had an issue with the venue creep and the lack of bands I see at TGE. When it was relatively cheap, I learned to treat the weekend as a short break with some music. Sadly, the hotels are now a rip-off. Nearly £600 for four nights in a Premier Inn. Looking at next year’s prices, several hotels are quoting £1000 for four nights when they were quoting £500 four years ago. Brighton is pricing itself out of this game. Is it really worth £150 a day to spend half your time queuing? If somehow TGE could make this year’s Saturday happen every year. I wouldn’t think twice. While I have a ticket for next year, I am in two minds if it is worth booking hotels or to pass on the ticket to somebody else. I don’t know. Maybe with clear light of day, I might change my mind. But at the moment, £600 would cover the cost of two festivals elsewhere. I suspect I will be back next year. But it will probably be my last unless there are some serious changes.
Artists at TGE and Brighton Festival
Day 0 – Yuanfan Yang, Moon Idle, Maximillian, Porchlight,
Day 1 – Katie Phelan, Reb Fountain, Connor Mac, Minas, The New Cut, Cowboyy, Freak Slug, Deadletter, Coach Party, Benefits, Pax Cultura, Lael Neale, Navy, Ruth Lyon, Storry
Day 2 – Annie Taylor, Luke RV, Baby Cool, Benefits, Sleeper, Lilo, Penelope Trappes, JFDR, Hinako Omori, Maria Chara Argiro
Day 3 – Anna B Savage (x2), Rainbow Frog Biscuit, Soak, Ombigizi, PABST, Nadia Sheikh, Sophie Jameson, Flossing, Butch Kassidy, Nice Biscuits, Ann Lu Cannon, Pencil, Anna Wolf