Live Review: The Great Escape

16 May

EMA

Brighton, May 12-14 2011

With more than 300 bands playing at 30 Brighton venues over three days, devising a Great Escape itinerary takes more planning than a US Special Forces operation in Pakistan.

As no doubt many event virgins discovered, excessive venue hopping means all you get to hear are the grumbles of the people behind you in ever-growing queues as packed out clubs and bars operate a one-in-one-out policy.

It was a bonus-and-a half , then, that on day one of the event, four must-see bands were all playing under one roof.

Two Wounded Birds were the first up at Hector’s House and immediately set out to sound like two completely different bands. One minute singer Johnny Danger is delightfully droning over dense and  cutting guitars, the next he’s firing his cohorts through shouty and spiky pop-punk numbers. This Margate four-piece haven’t yet crafted a sound of their own, but there’s more than enough on display to suggest they are worth keeping an eye on.

One man you can’t help but notice is PS I Love You frontman Paul Saulnier, who  is the perfect physical embodiment of his band’s sound; bloody huge and fuzzy. Aided only by a drummer, he churns out masses of distorted guitars and demented Frank Black-esque screeching and somehow emerges with a handful of memorable tunes. It’s big, loud and clever.

Sadly the same can’t be said for Dutch Uncles whose sub-Ocean Colour Scene dirges and grating high-pitched vocals only succeeded in providing time for a breather at the bar.

Thankfully Welsh trio The Joy Formidable quickly get things back on track with their tried and tested formula of melodic vocals, sweeping guitars and clattering drums, all of which build into an almighty crescendo. There’s little variety, but there’s no doubt they’ve honed a style that’s almost out-grown sweaty boozers like this.

Day two, Friday, starts at The Green Door Store with Admiral Fallow main man Louis Abbott charming his way through stripped-down versions of tracks from debut LP Boots Met My Face. Sounding like a calmer Frightened Rabbit, Abbott’s voice is strong enough not to miss his band and his self-deprecating wit means he can twice halt a song because he’s forgotten the words, and no-one minds.

After a brief afternoon lull, it’s off to Concorde 2 to see Phoenix Foundation. With Buffalo they released one of the catchiest singles of the year, but sadly the rest of their set reveals this to be the exception rather than the norm. Playing right next to the sea with the sun flooding in, their songs are suitably hazy, jangly and inoffensive but these Kiwis ultimately come across like a Fleet Foxes second X1.

The Pavilion Theatre was the place to be for the rest of the evening to see husband and wife Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou huddle together around one microphone to play their quintessentially English and earthy folk numbers to polite applause before Josh T Pearson brought some genuine star quality to proceedings.

His haunting songs of misery, breakdowns and a failed marriage are interspersed with trademark banter in his thick Texan drawl. With just his booming voice and one guitar, he’s intense and immense. The only problem is that his songs are so long that he only manages to play five numbers before he’s told to leave the stage amid demands for an encore.

Villagers then round the night off with a surprisingly boisterous set where even some of the more fragile moments from album Becoming  a Jackal are cranked-up a level to impressive effect.

Saturday starts by fighting the way past snotty kids, stag-do victims, and shitting seagulls on Brighton Pier to reach Horatios where the bluegrass-tinged sounds of James Vincent McMorrow baffles those on prenuptial piss-ups but enthrall the rest of us before Conquering Animal Sounds bring the tempo down with their delicate electronic sounds and dreamy vocals.

Back on solid land, Let’s Buy Happiness entertain a small crowd at The Queen’s Hotel with their big, windswept guitars and Sarah Hall’s towering vocals before fellow Geordies The Castells take to the stage at Above Audio and provide the one moment of the weekend where it felt like you’d stumbled across The Next Big Thing.

They might not be able to afford a pint and were kipping on a campsite having spent all their cash on travelling down, but with a frantic collection of taut yet tuneful songs under their belts and more passion than most other acts playing this weekend combined, they’ll soon be accustomed to a higher standard of living. There’ll be comparisons to near neighbours The Futureheads but their songs are more memorable, brash and feisty than that. With a frontman who knows how to perform – does climbing on monitors ever get tedious? – these four fellas will seemingly sweat blood and tears for the cause.

Fyfe Dangerfield’s Guillemots then took it down a notch or two with a brief street gig but despite now being on album number three, it appears they’ve never bettered early singles Trains to Brazil and Made-Up Love Song, both of which are well received.

The late afternoon hiatus was then shattered over at The Pav Tav where The Long Insiders meted out some primal, psyched-up rock before word got out that EMA – who at that very minute was playing at  a packed-out Horatios – would be making a second appearance down the road at Jam.

With no more than 40 people inside the stifling basement venue, either the message hadn’t got out, or more likely, many thought it was best to stay where they were rather than run the queues risk. Whatever the reason, they missed one of the weekend’s highlights.

EMA – or Erika M. Anderson to her mother – has bundles of stage presence and personality. Her sound is raw and intense and far more abrasive and noisy than on her debut album Past Life Martyred Saints.

There’s nothing forced or deliberately intricate as she wades through tracks packed with heavily distorted bar chords, reverb and unrelentingly honest lyrics.  Like all the best music, it’s ultimately uncomplicated and anyone with a guitar could replicate it. Pulling it off with such style and panache, however, is a damn site harder.

She ends the set with a foray into the crowd during the rambling California before retreating backstage, hot, knackered and a tad tipsy. After three days of Great Escaping, those here know exactly how she felt.

The Castells

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