In with the new over and over again at the pace-setting Brighton festival.
So once again it was that time of the year. The music industry of Britain and beyond – along with some actual regular fans! – descended upon Brighton for a whirlwind of showcases of up-and-coming acts, networking events and conferences spanning 10th to 13th May. Aside from our own small corner of the madness, an unofficial all-dayer at The Gladstone Arms, we were let loose to make the most of it all, catching as many bands as we could while desperately tying to evade burning out entirely.
The festivities began on Wednesday night with a cluster of official events but Thursday is the day things really get going. Arriving in Brighton around lunchtime, the streets were already filled and queues for wristband collection wilted in the hot May sunshine and we had already missed several great acts since the start of play at midday.
Amid such an overwhelming carnival of shows and styles – and indeed The Great Escape is unrelentingly eclectic, throwing middle-of-the-road pop right up against… well against cumgirl8 – it seemed important to begin with something sure and familiar and true… cue Jessica Winter in the early afternoon. Indeed, if there is anyone who can instantaneously bring the party, it is Winter. Performing for The Most Radicalist at Shortts Bar, she had the place packed and literally rocking, a surprisingly powerful sound system responding well to her pounding beats.
The mid-afternoon was a good chance to get one’s bearings in the city, with shows to catch from Modern Woman to the north at Unbarred Taproom and Anna Erhard back in the centre at Jubilee Square. Then, patting ourselves on the back for catching The Last Dinner Party ahead of time at their Moth Club show back in November, we felt free to skip their set (and its queue!) to bed in at Komedia. Here was a high contrast double bill of Sam Akpro and Billie Marten. A general rule of thumb for this festival: prioritise pairings of good acts to keep dashes between venues to a minimum.
Up first, Akpro played through a blazing set of his unique material accompanied by his band, “The City Scrapers”. From ingenious ‘Remain in Light’ bass groove of an accelerated ‘Trace’ opening the set, it was a dazzling performance. Though a little awkward between songs (forced to shyly ask the audience ‘how’s it going’ when his band requested a little more time to prep one tune), Akpro is a riotous force when he hits full flow. Though one guitarist was visibly having some technical difficulties throughout the set, the other more than filled the gap, with whip-crack wah-wah licks giving the whole show an extra tingle.
Following this was Billie Marten, performing a mix of material from across her catalogue. Instant classics from new album ‘Drop Cherries’ shone alongside revisions of earlier tunes, a rockier version of ‘Mice’ being particularly impressive for its stylistic evolution while retaining the original mood of that tune.
From here, a quick break for fish and chips was in order to truly assimilate into the seaside setting. After that, it felt especially appropriate to be headed to a show on the beach. Beside a black nighttime sea, a festival-within-festival setup funded by the Amazon dollar shone sickly and inviting, imperious spotlights reaching into the sky above us. Sorry took to their main stage at 10.30, delivering a compact but tremendous set. This is a great era for their setlist, a cherry-picked rotation of hits from ‘925’ and ‘Anywhere But Here’. Seeing Asha Lorenz crack a smile on stage for the first time I can remember, you suspect the band sense that they are at the height of their powers.
Performing under the banner of a company as thoroughly uncool as Amazon does have its downsides, though. As the band were tying up their closer, ‘Baltimore’, the stage managers literally pulled the plug on the sound system, unwilling to let the show go on a minute later than 11. Mid-flow, the band were not to be easily interrupted, and they played on as best they could, drummer Lincoln Barrett continuing to pound away as Lorenz turned up her amp to finish off her guitar solo. The tonal shift from high-class production to earthy room tones was rather compelling, though unintentional, and evidently the band were not best pleased about the situation.
Closing the night, we descended upon the Fiddler’s Elbow, chasing the name of cumgirl8. It is funny how these events, with their sense of an ephemeral abundance of unmissable performances, can quickly create a cultish buzz around certain bands. cumgirl8 was the unlikely name on the lips of many this weekend, with many enamoured by no more than the name itself and snippets heard on festival’s playlist. We found ourselves in a slow-moving queue outside. The bouncer was pantomime, visibly pained every time he had to let a fresh few people into the venue and weightily bearing good and evil in his paws as he chased out those trying to sneak in the back.
With a floor stage tucked into its corner, The Fiddler’s is a perfect claustrophobically intimate venue to close any night. The righteous cumgirl8 came in unwilling to give the faintest damn, jibing the sound tech through a hasty check. Their set was fabulous, punk in spirit with a sound operating entirely on its own terms. Drummer Chase Noelle is one of the best in the game, constantly reinventing the tunes with little flourishes and shifts in emphasis. Guitarist Avishag Cohen Rodrigues was endlessly watchable as she chain-smoked joints and clambered around the stage, occasionally breaking to interject on a visibly beaten up synth. This was a perfect end to the opening salvo of the festival. Heading home with legs already exhausted from a long day of walking, it was time to get some much-needed rest.
Another name evidently taking the festival by storm was Alice Low. Having missed her two Thursday shows after meeting long queues outside each venue, we were thrilled to get in to One Church to see the Cardiff-based artist perform as part of a Welsh music showcase. The songs from new EP ‘Transatlantic Sugar’ shone, of course, but what really made them was their performance by Low, which shifted easily between the ridiculous and intensely moving. Her delivery takes time over each syllable to find a meaning relevant to its specific moment. Her actions made fresh sense of the lyrics, complete with belly-rubbing through the pregnant chorus of ‘Show Business’.
The close of this show left us not too far from the opening of our unofficial showcase to the north of the city at The Gladstone. A healthy walk straight up the main road landed us outside the big yellow pub to prepare for the opening set from Platonica Erotica. Humbly backed get her laptop on this occasion, she played a set dominated by favourites from her self-titled debut EP along with some tantalising new tunes. She revealed afterwards that she hadn’t prepared a set backing track for these, and was simply singing along to default drones from her peculiar palette.
Following this were electric sets from Bingo Fury – whose setup spilled over into the floor space – and from Max Fulcrum and the Win, the mysterious new group formed around Dominic Rose of the moribund Fake Turins. Again, the discipline involved sticking with a solid billing rather than chasing the day. Proudly backing our lineup, we all stuck around for the kraut punk thrum of Kyoto Kyoto, newly enlivened by Gail Tasker on flute, and dream garage newcomers Hank. Closing our night were Alien Chicks, who offered up a second outstanding drum performance of the weekend. Martha Daniels’ playing makes this band, elevating the meaning of their spiralling stream-of-consciousness lyrics and thundering strings.
Heading out after our modest 11pm curfew, the camp split heading either to a social run by our favourites, the Rotterdam festival Left of the Dial, or to Chalk for a stacked close to the night. At Chalk, Dream Wife took the midnight slot. Their live set is destructively infectious, repeatedly producing clever playful moments (see new single ‘Don’t Date a Musician’) and cathartic singalongs. Rakel Mjöll’s voice is unparalleled for the space it creates, persistently powerful while always keeping tight to its melody. The sound blasted wall to wall in the venue, building to a climax celebrating “bad bitches” (which is a gender non-specific term, Mjöll insisted) in the final refrain of F.U.U.
Up next were HotWax, a new generation of rock ‘n’ roll. The precocious trio may have youth on their side, but bookended by two of the tightest punk acts out there, we felt the room for them to iron out their sound, which was not quite as gripping. At 2am, Deadletter took over. Sources *cough* close to the band inform me that the timing was not ideal, just a little too far into the night. A couple of members were reportedly a little fuzzy, either from the Left of the Dial drinks or the hastily consumed Red Bulls backstage. Though Zac Lawrence seemed perhaps a little less virile than usual, the overall effect was that of business as usual, that is to say insistently danceable guitar music. The levels were a little askew, suppressing the vocals and sax, but this put the emphasis squarely on the band’s pure power. Helping to ward off sleep for just a little longer, Deadletter showed why their live reputation has propelled them to new heights this year.
We started out this final stretch with the vaunted RVG, an Australian four-piece who regularly dent the UK live scene. They are a proper rock band, warts and all, not imitating sounds of the past but exuding that time-honoured, encrusted cool. One track opens, “I stepped upon an ancient fish, waking along an ancient beach”. Awlright!
Our next major engagement was Lunch Money Life, appropriately tucked into the club space of Patterns. We watched as the five-piece set up their improbable synth arrangements (vertical pedals, I mean come on now) and gradually shuddered into gear. At showtime, they were unstoppable. Having wowed us at Fair Play Festival in April, we were once again blown away by their intense, unpredictable interplay, driven by impossible drum patterns and visionary bass-playing. The crowd was charmed and danced as best they could given the polyrhythmic circumstances.
With the weekend suddenly slipping out of sight, a sentimental return to the Fiddler’s Elbow was needed. Brighton promoters Love Thy Neighbour had been running a tight set of shows all weekend, and it was here that they produced one final exceptional offering. Though we were too late for Yowl (once again on the wrong side of the pantomime bouncer), we made it in with plenty of time to catch the headliners, Speedy Single canon inductees Hot Face. Before this came an astounding performance from BABii. Her breathy and energetic hyperpop immediately won us over as it evidently has so many including Radio 1’s tastemakers. BABii made effective use of a torch as her only stage lighting, waving it around evocatively in time with the music, before replacing it with a ribbon which she twirled hypnotically. The floor stage of Fiddler’s is not particularly forgiving for shorter performers, but she evaded this issue by clambering all over the surrounding furniture. An excellent and charming performance.
Up next were cult favourites DITZ, who lived up to this status as they formed a setlist out of audience requests. Lead singer Cal Francis took crowdsurfing to another level, at one point practically climbing out of a skylight, all with microphone firmly in hand. Fighting tiredness, we sustained ourselves on Guinness through a secret set from TRAAMS before, at last, Hot Face took to the stage to close our festival experience. Jessica Winter seemed like a very very long time ago, blasted to the recesses of our memory by a slew of mind-expanding performances from a cross-section of the future of British live music. Swearing we’d try to avoid ever walking anywhere ever again, we headed to a hard-earned rest in bed before the train home on Sunday morning.