The Great Escape, Various venues, Brighton
There are lots of big names, but it's the chance to see so many hotly tipped up-and-comers that make this festival such a success
Sunday 15 May 2011
In the opening scenes of the original 1947 version of Brighton Rock a man, mortally terrified, darts out of a seafront pub and hurtles through the streets of Brighton, boards a bus back into town, leaps off it and sprints past the Royal Pavilion, till he is finally accosted on the Palace Pier by Richard Attenborough's sinister "Pinkie" Brown and his goons.
Negotiating The Great Escape feels a little like that, albeit with the fear of getting assassinated replaced by the fear of failing to get from Example at Concorde 2 to Horatio's in time for Cults before it's one-in one-out on the door.
In just six years, this festival-cum-convention has established itself as, approximately, Britain's answer to Austin, Texas's SXSW, a testament to Brighton's eternal appeal to smoke-choked Londoners. This year's big names are Katy B, Friendly Fires, Guillemots, The Vaccines and Sufjan Stevens, but it's the hundreds of hotly tipped up-and-comers, and the compulsion to cram as many in as possible, which brings on the panic attacks.
The convention element ticks over relatively smoothly. Music biz types might catch Paul Epworth or Frank Turner in conversation, be schmoozed by the French Music Board or the Performing Rights Society at afternoon drinks, or titillated by a super-injunction-busting session called Heroes & Villains in which horror stories about the worst artists to work with are revealed by insiders.
It's at nightfall that the chaos begins. An optimist would say The Great Escape is a victim of its own success; a less kind person that it's been insanely oversold. The fact that it occurs at the same time as the Brighton Festival and Fringe (not to mention the stag/ hen party season) creates a perfect storm, requiring ushers in hi-vis jackets to marshal the busy intersection outside the Mash Tun pub. And when you hear reports from the front of the Gang Gang Dance queue that waiting time is about an hour (and they're on in five minutes), even a gold delegate's wristband won't save you.
Luckily, the line outside the Doric columns of the Unitarian Church to see Villagers is more civilised. The moment Conor J O'Brien sits down with a guitar, the reasons for the acclaim attracted by Villagers' debut album Becoming A Jackal become obvious. Far from just another self-absorbed singer-songwriter, O'Brien is an enchanting storyteller, and begins with the extraordinary "Cecilia & Her Selfhood", a tale about assembling a posse to exact bloody vengeance on the yobs who vandalised a statue.
A storyteller from an earlier generation is enthralling the Komedia, 100 yards up the road. Salford punk-poet genius John Cooper Clarke imagines what would happen if the snooker finished early and the BBC had to fill time with hardcore pornography, considers getting a gig with the Rolling Stones as a Ronnie Wood decoy, loses points for a lazy number about Belgium being "the Watford of the world", recovers by using the phrase "farinaceous victuals" to describe pies, and brings the house down with a 200mph rant through his Sopranos-endorsed classic "Evidently Chickentown".
Meanwhile, DJ Shadow makes a rare UK appearance in the Dome inside a giant ping-pong ball illuminated by flickering images of what used to be called "scratch video", and his hyperactive magpie-like pilfering of stolen beats gets the floor jumping. Next door in the Corn Exchange, the all-female LA quartet Warpaint play to about a quarter of those who queued to see them, but the lucky, patient and sharp-elbowed get a treat. With songs like the deliciously mournful "Undertow" – part Mamas and the Papas and part Cure – they're exquisite.
It's not yet midnight, and a body is laid out on the pavement, attended by paramedics. It's probably a Great Escape delegate who's overdone the free Chablis. But I swear I saw Pinkie Brown disappearing down the alley...
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