wed 19/06/2024

The Great Escape Festival 2024, Brighton review - a dip into day one and the elephant-in-the-room | reviews, news & interviews

The Great Escape Festival 2024, Brighton review - a dip into day one and the elephant-in-the-room

The Great Escape Festival 2024, Brighton review - a dip into day one and the elephant-in-the-room

An opening snapshot of Brighton's multi-venue showcase

BEX gives it the punk rock eyeballDesirée Dawson © Madeline Rome, Baby Said © Thomas H Green

Before reviewing The Great Escape, we must first deal with the elephant in the room. Or, in this case, the room that’s crushing the elephant, like the trash compactor in the first Star Wars film.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM BIT

There is a boycott, by around 25% of booked artists, of Brighton’s annual multi-venue showcase for new and rising bands. This is in protest at sponsor Barclays Bank’s involvement with arms companies trading with Israel as that country instigates the ongoing and catastrophic Gaza bloodbath. The boycott was begun a couple of months ago as a petition by Bristol punk outfit The Menstrual Cramps, alongside their record label, Alcopop!. It has gathered momentum, supported by heavyweights (who were never playing the festival) such as Massive Attack, Brian Eno and Idles, and has led to some of the bigger names dropping out, including Warmduscher, Alfie Templeman, Lambrini Girls and, allegedly, Jarvis Cocker, who was to give an opening talk.

Picked up by international media, well outside the music press, the boycott has become something of a cause celebre, a focus for rage and horror at the repulsive carnage foisted on Palestinian civilians. But Birmingham punk duo Big Special, who remain on the line-up, offer an alternate perspective, releasing a statement that, “capitalism is a stain on life and it has spread to its furthest reaches. It’s hard to do anything that does not support some hollow corporation devoid of morals.”

While they stand by the principles of the boycott, for them issues are raised around opportunity, privilege and communication: “Some artists of working class origin and minority backgrounds have an opportunity [at The Great Escape] to share rare perspective, especially to audiences in more privileged areas, who might not be as engaged with these points of view.” Big Special are, for the record, donating their fee to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund.

For such a campaign against Barclays to be effective, it will need to attack them on all fronts, consistent fiscal attrition to force them to divest. This means boycotting all that they sponsor. So, no Women’s Super League football, no Sadlers Wells Ballet, no Donmar Warehouse theatre, and much more. Also, Live Nation, who are partly behind The Great Escape, are intermeshed with Barclays, their pairing behind or involved with Latitude Festival, Download Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival, as well as most of the gigantic arena concerts that roll across the globe, including Taylor Swift’s current Eras Tour.

There are those who would also point out that most banks are heavily invested in all kinds of wrongness. So are many other corporations. Free market economics is, after all, now a global religion. I’ve been trawling today, for much longer than I should, through stats to illustrate this. I was going to throw them in here, but a gig review is not the place. Nor is my intent to suggest that, in a corrupt world, adhering to the boycott is pointless. Far from it.

The Great Escape has made a huge error by not responding, pretending the whole thing isn’t happening. Along with many other publications, Theartsdesk requested a formal response which we could integrate with reviews and commentary. But, at the time of writing, there’s been only radio silence. The Great Escape could, perhaps, have pointed out that the boycott campaign arose fairly recently, in planning terms, when this four-day-long event, that takes over a whole city, was fully booked, millions invested, artists coming from all over the world.

What would returning/refusing Barclays money, at such short notice, have done to their future? What would become of The Great Escape if they’d suddenly called the whole thing off? This is, after all, one of the UK’s most important musical showcases for rising talent. And at a time when small venues and lower profile artists are being annihilated by gig-goers’ post-Covid habits and the “cost of living crisis”. The Great Escape has a biosystem around it, gigs that are symbiotically connected, whether The Alternative Escape, which The Great Escape actively supports as its own “fringe”, or the plethora of small gigs, free and otherwise, whose stance is often vehemently opposed to the main event. The Great Escape would have been sensible to acknowledge the boycott’s issues in a measured way, representative of most of the bands attending. They could even have made intimations about the future, beyond the 2024 event.

As with Eurovision, a very different sort of occasion, the grotesquery of toxic real-world geo-political agendas increasingly leaks into unexpected areas. We must all contextualise our responses, make our calls, draw lines in the sand, while being respectful, where appropriate, of others’ perspectives.

THE REVIEW BIT

After picking up my accreditation lanyard from a hotel on the seafront, I drop in on The Green Door Store to catch a snip of afternoon action. Tucked downhill underneath the eastern side of Brighton Station, the building was once central to the horse cabbies who plied their trade a century ago, a horse hospital among other things. That feel is still present, from the large-gated doors to the bricked courtyard floor. There’s also a giant FREE PALESTINE flag beside the bar that speaks to now.

desireeCanadian singer Desirée Dawson (pictured left) stands centre stage with female friends either side, one with a hollow-bodied acoustic and one sitting astride a cajon drum. Both will provide sweet harmonies throughout but Dawson’s voice, hardly accompanied, is pretty much the show. With giant earrings and clad in a culotte-panted jumpsuit covered in lush climbing roses, and a black cut-off jacket, she starts acapella; “What I need is all I have, all I have is what I need, embrace the journey, quiet endless searching”.

This she tells us, is an ethos that came to her as she stood in the Caribbean in Kingston, Jamaica, feeling melancholy. Given, like all artists here, she only has half an hour, she does lot of chatting. She’s guilelessly sincere, emitting superstrong new age hippy-healer vibes. The next song is “Hold the Hope” (“I call myself a hope-holder… we’re all hope-holders”). She tries to get us to join in and it’s impressive that a few do, as it’s early in the day and the place is full of music biz sorts.

The last two songs are where she really shines. Her schtick is too skinlessly earnest for me, but her voice is just lovely, clear and bright, presented with exactly the right amount of reverb. “Human” is a country song pared back to its soulful bones while “Chop Some Wood”, a paean to country living, is the first time the band really come to real life, offering a Johnny Cash chugga-chugga while Dawson’s lyrics of innocent rustic enjoyment recall Jonathan Richman. Then she’s gone, and so am I, heading to Worthing for the launch of the Worthing Festival 2024, before returning to The Great Escape this evening.

My evening is spent in the Prince Albert, a Brighton institution, also just down from the train station. It’s a three storey Victorian building that’s been a pub since 1860, and achieved additional fame in recent years for the huge mural of deceased musicians on its outer wall (by graf’ artists Req & Sinna One). In the three decades I’ve known the city, the Albert has been a bastion of all that’s great about Brighton; countercultural, friendly, down-to-earth, affably scuzzy, and consistently on-it musically, playing host in its 100-cap upstairs room to endless multitudes of alternative bands, some of whom went on to global success.

As the city has become more gentrified, it’s hugely gratifying that the Albert stands staunch, despite threats of building around it that would likely have hamstrung its ability to do what it does (the last one defeated only last November). These days Brighton is as much about overpriced coffee and fiscal software experts adopting yoga’n’green tea poses, but the Albert hasn’t changed a jot. Thus, with a refreshing pint of Burning Sky Arise ale (4.4%) in my hand, I find myself in that upstairs room, watching Australian five-piece Johnny Hunter.

johnnyMost immediately striking is singer Nick Hutt (pictured right, at another recent gig), who has a shaggy brown Cobain cut and wears a Nehru jacket with nothing underneath, a neckerchief and ostentatiously belted pantaloons, although the band’s bassist, clad in a black negligee and with a proper mullet, comes a close visual second.

They are musically tight and their sound is an amalgam of kosmische-propelled new wave and early Noughties pop-rock, with a lathering of new romantic foppery. Comparatives I scribbled down during their set include The Cars, The Bravery, The Killers, WH Lung, Bauhaus and Roxy Music, the latter two partly for Hutt’s yelping vocal style. The lyrics and his posturing could not be more early-Eighties Top of the Pops, all performative dance hand gestures and melodrama, lyrics such as “Tell me, how do you die in a living hell?” and, better still, “Dance to the sound of the confession song”.

They give it their best shot, Hutt clearly wants this UK opening gig to be special, he tears his top off, and strolls the crowd, singing, but the response is warm-ish rather than rabid. It doesn’t quite click. Perhaps Johnny Hunter’s retro musical parameters have already been overworked, perhaps it’s the songs themselves. Back in Sydney, they’re a sensation, apparently. When they end, I’m left thinking of the film The Breakfast Club, all that heartfelt but histrionic pink-goth Eighties-ness.

baby saidAfter a half hour break, on come Baby Said (pictured left). They are fronted by the Portsmouth-raised Italian-Punjabi-British Pal sisters Jess (bass/vocals) and Veronica (guitar/vocals), backed by impressively huge-haired guitarist Holy Knowles and blonde drummer Maddie Hackett. This lot are also super-tight – the Pal sisters are teenagers but have been in bands forever, and, boy, do they have the songs, every one a catchy smasher, whether a Nirvana-ish cut with a chorus that runs “Thank God I’m not you”, a slowie “for anyone who’s suffering” called “Burn”, or passionate grunge-pop bangers such as “You Killed It” and “Dead to Me”.

The music is relentlessly solid, which it should be given the group have polished it up with ranks of pro’ songwriters for the likes of McFly, Twin Atlantic, Pharrell Williams, and Stereophonics. With such backing and hefty management behind them, these are teenage women lapping up life and at the beginning, judging from these songs, of a rollercoaster career, just revving into what they’ll become. In the wake of Wet Leg, who they loosely resemble (only Baby Said are more US rock), the world may be theirs.

bexThe final act I catch is BEX (pictured right, in a publicity shot), a punk rocker from Guildford who’s in the same kind of age range as Baby Said. With a mop of garish dyed red-pink hair, one eye shadowed red, one green, she wears a scrappy tartan dress. Her band consist of a drummer wearing a black fishnet top, bare-chested beneath, and a ponytailed bassist in a metal tee and Kings Road-style tartan bondage trousers.

They’re all clearly in thrall to original 1970s London punk, which they melt down to a staccato tantrum-pop, tinted with metal, and sneerily spat by BEX. Her antic faces, bulge-eyed, manic stares, and twitchy thrashing are redolent of both prime Johnny Rotten and long-forgotten Eighties/Nineties alt-rockers Daisy Chainsaw. The bassist gives it full Lemmy, playing his instrument like a guitar, and BEX, on two songs, picks up her own bass and spars with him.

She screams, she sings, she even raps, and she has us all repeatedly sing “bite down” back at her during one song (and we do). New song “Fight” is loud and fired-up then, towards the end, she makes a small speech about Gaza and tells us that the money from all merch sold will be given to Palestine. She ends with “SunDae”, her catchy “greatest hit” which becomes an earworm due its chorus being the children’s rhyme “Rain, rain, go away, come back another day”. She needs more songs that are its match but, until then, her theatrical stage presence, her attitude, and her punchy sound should keep her flying along.

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