The Great Escape, Brighton’s answer to Texas’s South-by-Southwest festival, has grown at an alarming rate in its six-year existence.
Now hosting 300 bands across 30 venues, the most visible result of this expansion is a problem with queues. Looking at the hundreds of people at the mercy of ruthless doormen and a strict one-out, one-in policy, one is compelled to venture off the beaten track and root out the lesser-known artists - which, of course, was the festival's original raison d'etre.
One such artist is Hannah Cohen, an Anglo-American former catwalk model who performs to a not-quite-full house in a Unitarian chapel and whose voice is so pure and understated that the proto-punk band playing in the pub over the road frequently threatened to overwhelm her. When you can make her out, there’s a pleasing sparseness and melancholy to her acoustic ditties, even if, on the more jazz-inflected tracks, she’s apt to go a little bit Norah Jones.
Francois & The Atlas Mountains, the first French act to sign to Domino, put on a more robust performance at the Corn Exchange, marrying West African drumming with jingle-jangle guitars and occasional flourishes of dub and house music. Theirs is a rich musical melting pot that is somewhat overcooked at times but has its gripping moments. While these bearded boys lack finesse as performers (enough with the piggy backs, lads) their enthusiasm is infectious.
“This is a song about a priest who launched himself off a cliff with a bunch of helium balloons and was never seen again,” says Holly Fullbrook aka Tiny Ruins, in a small basement club off the seafront. The Bristol-born, New Zealand-raised singer’s folk songs, accompanied by acoustic guitar and upright bass, are part poems, part novellas, and populated by peculiar characters doing decidedly peculiar things. Fullbrook is soon to open for the Handsome Family, whose taste for the darkly absurd she clearly shares. Hopefully we’ll see more of her.
Proving that the Great Escape isn’t just about championing newbies, Alabama Shakes have them queuing around the block on Saturday evening. Through a combination of smart marketing and a vintage sound, the Southern soul-rockers’ time is now and they’re giving it their all. Claims that Brittany Howard and co have been dredged from a swamp in the Deep South, or some such, exclusively for our consumption is neither here nor there in the face of Howard’s astonishing howl which is, yes, up there with Janis Joplin’s. This is the kind of artfully frayed blues-rock that the Kings of Leon were pedalling before they rolled over for the big bucks. Here’s hoping the Shakes don’t go the same way.