It’s hard to shake the feeling that The Great Escape, the annual three-day gigathon for new bands and Brighton’s answer to Texas’s South-By-South-West, has grown too unwieldy for its own good. Certainly, the queues outside venues that snake all the way to Eastbourne offer little hope to the majority of seeing the year’s buzz bands such as The Strypes, Swim Deep or Parquet Courts.
On the other hand where else would you find showcases in carpeted hotel basements devoted to the musical output of Catalonia, Nova Scotia and Poland, or indeed a hirsute, unnamed metal band playing out of the back of an illegally-parked transit van on a Saturday lunchtime in one of the city’s busiest shopping thoroughfares?
Around the corner from the traffic warden-dodging rockers is South Tyneside’s Nadine Shah who, seated at a keyboard, dryly deconstructs her sartorial choices. A former jazz singer whose voice is somewhere between PJ Harvey and Antony Hegarty, she is funny and upbeat in person though her shimmering compositions betray a darker heart.
Across town, heavily-tipped California two-piece Deap Vally keep us waiting for 40 minutes for their Runaways-meets-White Stripes set and then, on finding a marginally less than euphoric reception, tell the crowd to “drink some fuckin’ whisky”. In their tattered hot-pants and homemade feathered bra-tops, Deap Vally have gone to some effort to look like they’ve been pulled from the gutter. They’ve got the tunes, alright, but the badass vibe is laid on irritatingly thick.
By contrast, Brooklyn’s Phosphorescent are so unconcerned with their image, they could have come off a long shift at the builders’ yard. Led by Matthew Houck, their wounded Seventies-style country-rock saddens the heart while lifting the soul. Glasgow’s hyped-to-the-hilltops Chvrches pull off a similar trick, while paying homage to a different decade. The trio’s atmospheric synth-pop is delivered through a pristine prism of Pet Shop Boys and Prince, with singer Lauren Mayberry a nervous but engagingly unpretentious presence.
The most exciting find of the weekend, however, are Night Engine, a four-piece from London fronted by Phil McDonnell, an unnervingly charismatic man with the looks of Damian Lewis and the body language of David Byrne. Their sound is angular indie rock, a smart update of The Associates, “Let’s Dance”-era Bowie and Franz Ferdinand. On paper, they couldn’t be less fashionable, which probably makes them a dead cert.