Alaister Moghan reports from The Great Escape festival, where New Zealand artists like Aldous Harding, Kane Strang and Fazerdaze go to get the UK music industry talking.
Every May for over a decade, the shores of Brighton are awash with musicians, managers and assorted music industry folk attending The Great Escape – part ‘new music’ festival, part convention featuring music-related panels and networking meetups. Effectively the TGE is the annual class reunion for those in the indie music sector. Steve Lamacq of BBC Radio 6 boldly declares it “the Cannes of the music world.”
Among the 450 acts are five from New Zealand: Aldous Harding, Delaney Davidson, Fazerdaze, Jesse Sheehan and Kane Strang. Along with a strong Australian contingent – the likes of Jack Ladder, The Goon Sax and the Middle Kids – there is a palpable anticipation for Antipodean acts. Fazerdaze is hot off a sold out London show, while Aldous Harding and Kane Strang have both been media darlings in the UK of late. Harding’s appearance on Jools Holland has been widely-acclaimed and the NME listed Strang’s “gigantic and ambitious rock affair” as a “must see”.
From a musician’s point of view, The Great Escape is a strange experience. Industry-centric festivals like this reverse the protocol of a standard music festival. The creature comforts are reserved for the delegates who enjoy riders of free drinks and pastries (if you can work your way into some networking drinks) and a continuous line-up of stellar shows, while the acts have to grapple with unsettled and expectant audiences as well as strictly enforced short set times.
During my time there I see several Kiwi acts grappling with the realities and strangeness of a Great Escape show. On the first day, I join a packed Paganini Ballroom at the Old Ship Hotel for Aldous Harding’s headlining BBC 6 showcase set. The venue is stunning and there’s a weird energy in the room. The atmosphere is inhibited slightly by the restless day-drinking crowd at the back who by late evening seem incapable of pausing their endlessly murmuring. It says a lot for Harding’s captivating performance that the attentive audience at the front of the room frequent ‘shhs’ these backroom punishers.
Even when the hall is suddenly fully lit as Harding begins the encore of ‘Imagining My Man’ her performance doesn’t lose any focus. One dude next to me waves to Harding mid-song and blushes like a child when it’s reciprocated. The audience feels somewhat entitled to, yet enthralled by, Harding’s performance. It’s no surprise that industry rag Music Week selected Harding as one of the breakout performers from this year’s TGE. She’s undoubtedly having a moment.
Later, I ask Harding’s manager Liv Young to reflect on their Great Escape experience. She provides this statement: “Like any act diving into the semi-chaotic crockpot of festival showcases, we had specific objectives around Aldous’ third appearance at The Great Escape. Using the festival as a live launch platform for the release of Party, the band headlined two showcases: BBC6 Music and the NZ Music Commission. It was an ideal opportunity for Aldous to perform new material to a captive industry-centric audience, and generate ‘buzz’ around the record and her string of dates through Europe in May. The hotel coffee was above average, the Brighton drizzle was charming, and most importantly, Aldous’ shows were very well-received. We had great fun.”
The next day I catch Kane Strang at the New Zealand at The Great Escape showcase, which draws a faithful crowd at a repurposed former church. In a set of riddled with technical difficulties, Strang and his band stoically keep on. After a few songs he changes guitars, with his band dutifully launching into an impromptu rendition of ‘Summer Lovin’. They finally hit their straps with a raucous version of ‘Run Rings’. It’s all part of the Great Escape experience – you just have to get on with it.
The previous week I saw Fazerdaze at their sold out London show but have no luck getting in the door for their packed Great Escape set. As the crowd exit I see the familiar face of Flying Nun and Yumi Zouma stalwart Josh Burgess, who assures me that the Fazerdaze charm offensive continues.
Unfortunately, a schedule full of conflicts means I miss out on Alex Cameron, but I do get to see his fellow Australian tour-mate, the towering crooner Jack Ladder. Early on, Ladder mentions he’s playing the ‘hits’ solo without the backing of his usual group The Dreamlanders. I talk to Ladder later and he explains that the choice to tour solo came down to cost considerations, a common and pragmatic call for Australian bands looking to tour Europe.
Regardless, Ladder puts on a captivating show. His solo guitar set-up suits his epic rockabilly Hurstville-era material and the Hurtsville-style remix to the synthy ‘Come on Back This Way’ is an absolute treat.
Switching the guitar for a backtrack, Ladder also performs a new “love song about kidnapping” and his latest single ‘Susan’. They’re from what Ladder calls his “bad new record”, which he likens to an “80s Lou Reed record”.
Having gone over time, Ladder’s set ends abruptly. The Escape must go on. And that’s what a Great Escape set is – the cliff notes version of an artist, written by someone three gins deep in the early afternoon.
Outside of the ANZAC contingent, I seek out a few of my pre-picked faves and recommendations. Following Kane Strang’s set, I scavenge some free pastries and make my way down to the pier to The Arch, an intimate venue nestled under the marine parade, to see Azekel. He’s not yet a household name, but Azekel has some cred. You get that if Prince tweets you.
Live, Azekel is one part Starchild and the New Romantics and one part Wild Heart-era ‘rock’ Miguel. By the time he launches into his signature banger ‘New Romance’ everyone is on board. By the end, albeit on the third attempt, he gets the shy early afternoon audience singing along.
Another one on my must see list is Åsa Söderqvist, aka Swedish solo artist ShitKid. As the name suggests, Shitkid plays low-fi punk-pop. There’s a deeper meaning though – Shitkid is English for ‘skitunge’, a boogeyman who Swedish parents use to warn children away from playing rock and roll.
Like most Great Escape gigs, there’s chaos of some kind. Walking into the venue, I come across two stagehands frantically assembling an ironing board by the door. I never find out why. I catch Söderqvist’s two essential tracks, ‘Cocky Cool Kid’ and ‘I Wanna Be in LA’, and head off to catch The Districts on a recommendation.
The Great Escape’s creative use of space reaches a new level at the East Wing, a large school hall type building and literal wing of a hospital. The Districts simply blow away the Great Escape competition. After a day of enjoyable ‘day’ sets, the Philadelphia trio come out and rock with severe conviction.
It makes sense that the group have been an item since high school. Lead singer Rob Grote was a frenzy of joy – think Samuel Herring of Future Islands straitjacketed by a guitar. Rather than inspire his moves, this constriction amplifies his unique swagger, Grote’s trademark move is putting his hands ‘handcuffed’ behind his back between riffs while he frantically wriggles about.
The Districts are one of those American bands who channel the trappings of shoegaze – plenty of distortion, pedals and climatic guitar riffs – within the ambit of classic rock. Akin to bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars, The Districts are proof, should it be needed, that shoegaze doesn’t have to be boring. After a day of restrained audience interaction, it’s easy to forget that the best gigs often involve the constant threat of a middle-aged dude in a football jersey slamming into you.
As the night move to its end I trek to the Vevo Tent arena, a sponsored holding pen and live venue, where the drinks are served in paper cups akin to the ‘longest drink in town’ milkshake cups. Via the big screen I catch Rat Boy, whose teenage angst makes him come across as some type of Chav Cobain. Not my thing, but the kids seem to love it.
By Saturday, the hangovers are compounding. After a long recovery brunch, I follow some old workmates to the PRS (UK music collection society) showcase. A highlight is Flamingods, whose lineup includes two drums, a bassist, a keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist, and a long-haired blazered saxophonist channeling the energy and good looks of St Elmo’s Fire-era Rob Lowe.
The unnamed saxophonist only joined the trio “10 minutes” before the show, having run into the band on their way to soundcheck. Sometimes the Great Escape chaos is beneficial. The group’s trance/psychedelic jams are met with a warm reception and the mysterious saxophonist’s swaying dance moves and sax contributions bring out plenty of smiles.
By late in the third day, The Great Escape begins to feel like a more standard festival as the weekend crowds join the industry networkers. The queues get longer while the locals are out basking in the sun. Brighton is delightful.
I’d been intending to catch Shock Machine. If you happen to be wondering what happened to the dude from the Klaxons who married Keira Knightley – he’s in Shock Machine. Unfortunately, the queue is insane and impenetrable so, for me, that Klaxon mystery remains unsolved.
My festival concludes with Miya Fallick and Abattoir Blues. Both play blistering sets, with Fallick’s both polished and a complete feelings fest. It’s easy to see why she’s being tipped for much bigger things. In between the aforementioned sets, panels and meetups I catch scraps and sights of different bands which fade into a blur. I also get tips about what I missed, including Kiwi Leon van Dijk who now resides in Brighton and creates charming dream pop as Pelorus.
Most of the acts at The Great Escape are ones you’ve heard about but not actually seen before. For a music fan, keeping up with new acts, let alone ‘new music Friday’, can seem like a full-time job these days. And that’s the beauty of TGE – three days dedicated to mainlining mostly new music is a rare treat. From a performer’s perspective it’s not the most comfortable setting, but it’s a chance to engage with both fans and industry movers and shaker. If you take The Great Escape for what it is you can’t help but have a good time.
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