Last year, I was squeezing in as many shows at The Great Escape as I could during my lunch break and after work. This year, this is what my Thursday schedule looked like:
It looks impossible. It was impossible. But myself and my co-writer Xavier were determined to fit in as many gigs as possible this year. We've got blisters in places we shouldn't have them, and our editor's ears are still ringing from Alice Longyu Gao screaming in them. Now that's what I call The Great Escape.
Our first act of The Great Escape, Arianna Broderick (Maeve) brought a lot of energy for a midday set. I heard about her when she supported Marina alonside Tove Styrke—two of my favourite artists—and she did not disappoint. Her haunting, sirenesque voice filled the space and captivated the crowd's attention, before being underpinned by a thumping bassline and buzzy riffs.
She has an excellent voice for pop, but unfortunately I found a lot of her songs and choruses to be quite repetitive, especially 'Sick Like Me' (though, it was still enjoyable!). I much preferred 'Make Me Yours' which came out on Friday, and 'Can We Just Get High?', which was much more interesting musically, very sultry and smooth, as she sings "I got daddy issues but so does everybody / I know that you want me and I want you to but I know it will end without you".
I was about to leave the beach stage for another gig when I saw Ruti's, and suddenly the gig I was planning on going to had completely left my head because I was captivated by her voice. She was the winner of The Voice in 2018, and since then has released two EPs and keeps getting better and better. Her songs 'Nothing Easy' and 'So Much More', the latter of which she dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, were such a beautiful showcase of her voice: warm and soulful, and completely captivating. For me, this is what The Great Escape is about: stumbling across someone incredible who you hadn't heard before, but who becomes an instant favourite.
It seems unfair to compare any powerful-voiced 20-something to Olivia Rodrigo, but that's all I kept thinking of during Mia Wray's set. Her voice is huge, and she has such perfect control over it. She blew me away with her vocals in what I would call a 'heavy pop' way, paired with very soulful, vulnerable and raw lyrics. 'Rerun' was a favourite of mine, but she was her best when it was just her and a piano to beautifully complement her vocals.
With a line of black war paint across her face, Northern Irish singer-songwriter Amy Montgomery had me in what felt like a trance for her whole 30 minute set as I tried to work out how such a huge voice was coming out of such a tiny woman. She said she was 'sharing her music and her soul with us', and with hardly any downtime gave us a very good rock set. Her stage presence was extremely fun—that is, if she was on it at all, as it seemed the small stage at the Queen's Hotel couldn't contain the energy emanating from Montgomery, who spent a lot of time in the crowd. As I suspected it would, her set ended all too soon. It's so nice to see an artist so confident in their abilities to work the crowd, but also to have so much fun while performing. The full to bursting crowd enjoyed themselves, but nobody was having more fun than she was.
Ber (pronounced 'bear'), was one of the hardest gigs to get entry to the whole weekend. It felt like everyone wanted to get in—and rightly so, because the Minnesotan native put on one of the best shows of the festival. Her 'rollercoaster' set took us from shouting 'You still ruin my life, even though we don’t talk anymore' in 'Superspreader', wishing not the worst, but minor, inconveniences on someone during 'Your Internet Sucks', to sobbing 'We were meant to be, just not made to last' during Meant To Be, originally a duet with Charlie Oriain that blew up on TikTok.
When you're at a loose end at The Great Escape and needing to fill time you can always do worse than seek out an artist from Scandinavia, just as I went in blind to Hilde Skaar's set above The Hope & Ruin on Friday. Yet even if I had prepared, it wouldn't have made a jot of a difference.
Setting aside 'Higher Ground', a cheesy and hopeful debut that featured in her native Norway on the soundtrack to 2018 movie Battle, the newcomer's biggest song on Spotify is a cover of Coldplay's 'The Scientist' that layers carefully up to an ethereal crescendo without leaving a real impression. Here, lead-off number 'Obscene' has her carrying herself around the room with a ferocious vengeance and pop swagger that builds up to a simply devastating finale: "You're always drunk, kissin' my cheek / God, it's so obscene / You'd never say, but you raped me when I was 16 / God, it's obscene".
As the set unwound from this gut punch, the torment and heat eased but the infallible pop sensibilities remained on full display through more tracks from new album Mad Woman, the first part of which released through Warner late in March. Comparisons to compatriots who have gone on to substantial global acclaim like Girl In Red and Sigrid could at times feel painfully obvious but are certainly merited, with a ready-to-launch headline energy, a flawless and powerful vocal, and a capacity crowd hooked on every line.
Flanked by a moustachioed three-piece band for seven songs that admittedly never quite got back to the jaw-dropping levels of the introduction, Skaar's bold first impression can only be critiqued in perhaps veering too pristinely into a pop template, with the concluding 'Something Like This' simply a lick of production away from being prime for an Avicii album.
In a whirlwind time under her Yunè Pinku moniker, London's Asha Nandy has a remarkable knack for finding her 20-year-old self around superstardom, be it on the FIFA 23 soundtrack alongside Flume and Rosalía with the lively earworm 'DC Rot' or this month in Billboard heralded as one of their "21 Under 21", rounding out a list featuring billion stream big-hitters in Olivia Rodrigo, NLE Choppa and The Kid Laroi.
With the six tracks of last month's Babylon IX EP more than doubling her discography, it's becoming increasingly evident both on record and in person that her pandemic-crafted takes on electronica are poised to thrive. 'Blush Cut' from the new project opens the show with a delicate, sombre aura that kicks more into a cavernous warehouse vibe through into EP closer 'Fai Fighter', with the set performed solo across an array of equipment reciting her meticulous productions, despite her telling interviewers she's "like a stagehand person by nature".
All this comes little more than 18 months removed from her first release 'What You Like', a collaboration with Sydney producer Logic1000 that features in The Arch as a rare disjoint moment where she is simply on vocal duty and not traversing gear, and the set surprisingly feels the poorer for it. Nandy's hushed tones in and between songs can provide an effortless cool ('Bluff') while also getting overshadowed by a misfiring smoke machine as she tried to talk up 'DC Rot'. But such blips in presence aside, when the song opened and bubbled up away from the claustrophobic sounds that preceded it – or, as on 'Night Light', the show veered more towards body-wobbling club music – the nascent potential is clear.
I came across Welly downstairs at The Hope and Ruin and was hooked straight away. Maybe because I have an affinity for Southampton-formed bands who then move to Brighton, being Southampton-shaped and a Brighton-adopter myself.
They were exactly the level of whimsy I love. They were handing out loyalty cards for people to get stamped over the weekend (go to all six shows and they'll treat you to Pizza Express, go to fewer and win yourself a tea towel or record). The quintet were delightful, with quite the array of instruments (I'm sure I heard a cowbell in there somewhere), and they really brought my energy up after a long couple of days bouncing from venue to venue.
Alice Longyu Gao
I don't even know how to begin describing Alice Longyu Gao. Nothing I could possibly say would in any way prepare you for xer.
Longyu Gao's music is hyperpop at its finest, the absolute definition of it. Xer lyrics have been stuck in my head, and they would be stuck in yours too if you'd had xem scream in your face:
Rich b*tch drinking rich b*tch juice
Rich b*tch juice
Rich b*tch juice
I'm f**king tired
Don't you tell me to be happy
Don't you dare talk to me
I'm fucking tired
Don't tell me be happy
Don't you dare talk to me, b*tch
At times it felt like a private concert between Longyu Gao and two fans, right at the front and either side of me, who clearly knew every word, the singer cupping their faces with xer hands while screaming the lyrics at them, using the speakers at the front as an extension of the stage.
Considering the restraint on the recordings, the live performances bring a whole new energy. Xe quietly sets up the equipment solo, plays the harp a little bit, makes a TED talk joke, then all of a sudden xe goes absolutely insane and screams in your face. It's pure art. I'm surprised xey didn't pick up my camera and throw at across the room. I do also believe if Longyu Gao did that, xey would find me afterwards to replace it. That's what we're working with here.
As my co-contributor said, 'I knew it would be chaos, I anticipated chaos, that's why I wanted to be there'.
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard is not exactly a Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo situation but there is still plenty of the endearingly esoteric to be found in the Welsh foursome, whose latest single 'Chew' is less the blasphemous pining to John Lennon of their earlier material and instead the long-awaited answer to the question of what would happen if frontman Tom Rees cut his trademark mop of hair off and finally wrote that song for his dog Norma.
Perhaps that's why Komedia was packed to the rafters for their day-opening showcase and fourth and final set of the festival within seconds of doors opening on Saturday lunchtime, a time when you would be forgiven for expecting even the most diehard of sound detectives and industry bigwigs to be flagging somewhat after two-point-five days of the most intense musical discovery on the planet.
Those who did sneak in were richly rewarded, for four years on from their debut at the festival and off the back of last year's debut album proper Backhand Deals, Rees and his crew are clearly hitting their stride with a more hard-edged sound than the glam throwback twists they've built their name name name on. With the band describing the new era as "scary metal" – perhaps more simply their way of phrasing a garage-rock revival with thundering basslines and their cornerstone flair being channelled into a spikier but equally infectious mould – not a soul could have been unsatisfied as the room cleared. Unless they were still stuck outside, of course.
Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers
I went to see Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers almost entirely based on their name, and loved every moment of it. They formed after watching School of Rock and thinking starting a band didn't look too hard, and even if it at times they find it is, they made it look effortless. They knew exactly how to appeal to the crowd (express love for Brighton, joke about playing a long song that lasts ten seconds, exude queerness), and their set was tight, slick, and an excellent way to wake up (it was already 12:20 - Ed).
Though some of their jokes were a bit questionable, they sped through their set, bringing a real upbeat energy that was very much needed on day four of the festival. Debut single 'AHHHH!' was a personal favourite (I've been, thinking about what's right/I know that you don't know that you hold me too tight/I guess I'll get over it), and several of their songs have already made their way onto my gym playlist. I for one am very grateful they watched the Jack Black classic when they were 15—imagine how different the punk scene would be if they'd watched Cool Runnings instead?
Germein is a name I’ve heard a lot but not been able to see, until now! They are absolutely deserving of the hype they've been getting, and while I only saw a couple of their songs, I could tell just how much fun they were, and were having. It made for some perfect Saturday morning, on the beach, in the sun, indie pop music.
Rainbow Frog Biscuits
I think their appearance at Volks Nightclub on Saturday may have been Rainbow Frog Biscuits' (or, Amber Beresford's) first gig—at least, there's nothing coming up for her on setlist.fm, and as we all know that is the only reputable source of past concerts (editor's note: co-writer Xavier Voigt-Hill has now added her to the website).
The 21-year-old made a name for herself on TikTok, translating the success there into around 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and more than a million streams on her opening track, 'Attention'. A shockingly minimal set (solo on stage, their backing track was played in Preview mode from the files on her Macbook), I was incredibly impressed by her music. You can tell they've honed her craft through TikTok videos, but I don't mean that negatively—she's just very expressive.
With excellent harmonies that remind me distinctly of dodie, and influences of Brye and Joni Mitchell, it made for a very zen 30 minute set. They might have made a name for themselves with songs about her love of cow print, but what she performed was really some very good pop. She debuted a song she wrote two days before, during the festival itself, and already had the instrumentals sorted and ready to go—that's the kind of quality we're talking about here. Their gentle voice brought a whole new twist to ABBA's 'The Winner Takes It All', and after every song she seemed so genuinely grateful for all the applause, gleefully thanking the crowd every time.
I never thought a song about a simulation would be stuck in my head so well but Amber got it right when they sang 'I don’t really know/Where to go, what to do/Who to be, what to say/'Cause it’s all fake anyway'. I tell you what isn't fake: the talent oozing off of her, and the big things we're going to see them do in the next few years (go to her upcoming headline show next month, tickets here).
At the opposite end of the MacBook utilisation spectrum was Gold Panda, the Chelmsford/Peckham-honed producer better known to his family as Derwin Dicker, who took to the City Slang label showcase upstairs at Patterns with his one entangled amid a dizzying array of wires and synth modules to breathe life into material from his 2022 record The Work.
Where many may fairly regard The Great Escape as a hub of new music, it can be those of Dicker's vintage that provide its finest moments – February marked the 10-year anniversary of one Charli XCX launching her major label career with a rework of his debut album track 'You' – and intricate renditions of instrumental tracks like 'The Corner' and 'I've Felt Better (Than I Do Now)' simply shimmered around a heaving crowd both inside and out on the courtyard for a quintessential Ibiza beachside vibe on our very own doorstep.
Released last May as The Work's lead-off single and teased pre-set through soundchecks, 'I've Felt Better' in particular was a throbbing, grooving highlight of the cameo – and one at that only added to the schedule last minute to cover for the withdrawal of labelmate duo King Hannah. In the skittish melodies of 'Chiba Nights' to close, 2016's ode to Japan Good Luck And Do Your Best is as far back as the set allows us to travel, but the brief interlude was certainly one that demonstrated a truly compelling electronic show need not bother with extraneous flamboyancies when you've got a pumping four-beat at the core and a twinkling sample coating on top.
The Great Escape is Brighton's music scene at its finest, flinging every single door open to all who dare enter, but to adequately navigate the sheer onslaught of venues and performance options even in a city as concentrated as ours can be a proper struggle. Save for a trip to The Old Market, possibly the only concert venue to be found in Hove unless Elton John or Madness or Cliff Richard are turning out at the Sussex cricket ground, you will surely never find yourself more out of the way yet close to the action during the festival as you will in Horatio's.
The bar is 400-odd metres down the pier nestled amongst the rides and, for a brief stint on Saturday, it served as the hottest spot in town, with regular summer traffic intermingled with a snaking queue for a US five-piece by the name of Thumpasaurus, whose bio hands down wins this year's prize on the bill for the most likely to be shared with a cult: "The thump traversed all beings, and the Thumpasaurus helped distribute its secret wisdom to all sentient and non sentient creatures. It was good."
Once that crowd dispersed it was the turn of London's Elīza Legzdiņa to shake the foundations of the remains of the West Pier, let alone the one the show was actually taking place on. Beginning with a new track surely titled for its commands for undivided attention, the Latvian rapper took to the stage with both her array of beats from the likes of Rudimental and The Fanatix alongside a captivating, cocksure energy, wringing out the last dregs of life from a crowd eager to get stuck in despite a lack of familiarity with material soon to see the wider light of day.
Ending the festival for me was Brighton-based Congratulations, all in matching (but different coloured) cowperson outfits. Effortlessly cool, the quartet just yesterday got played by a friend I met through student radio on Radio One's Future Alternative show (shouts to Nels), so I'm very excited to have seen them just before they inevitably blow up (it was their first Radio One play!) These guys take DIY to the next level, entirely enmeshed in the recording and production processes, and you can tell the amount of love and soul they've poured into their music. Their show was loud, chaotic, frantic—an excellent closer to another excellent year at The Great Escape.
James Ellis Ford
It wouldn't be The Great Escape without rolling the dice on at least one or two mysterious acts perched well and truly outside of one's comfort zone, and opening up Sunday evening's slate in indie bullpen Chalk was one such opportunity.
Since meeting his Simian bandmates at the University of Manchester, James Ellis Ford has spent two decades behind the scenes curating one of music's most intriguing catalogues, be it carving out pristine disco-pop on Jessie Ware's What's Your Pleasure?, anchoring thundering indie repertoire from Foals and Arctic Monkeys, donning the drumsticks for the latter's side project The Last Shadow Puppets, or turning out seven eclectic electronic albums of his own under the Simian Mobile Disco moniker alongside longtime collaborator Jas Shaw.
Nowadays he is coming somewhat out of the shadows with The Hum, a record under his own name on the world-renowned Warp label that is usually more responsible for the Aphex Twins and Hudson Mohawkes of the world than Ford's mesmerising 10-tracker, which sees him claim each and every instrumental performance credit from acoustic guitar and ARP 2600 to vibraphone and wurlitzer. Perplexing promo materials describe it with whiplash gusto, labelling it an ode to the ambient oeuvre of Brian Eno and his Palestinian wife and five-year-old album cover designer son Frank, not to mention "as much exploration of the pastoral verve of Canterbury prog as it is informed by the dynamics of modern hip-hop production".
Taking to the Chalk stage mere hours after the release of the album, naturally recreating such an intricate magnum opus would prove impossible for a man even of Ford's well-documented talents and versatility, so instead he drops to the back of the stage to peddle percussion alongside a four-piece band pulling out the stops and swaps. Meekly introducing the act midway as "I am... we are James Ford" was perhaps a sign that the live show is yet to hit its stride, with the swirling psychedelic sax and discordant instrumental grogginess of preview track 'The Yips' well embodying a fascinating passion project listen from a man who, after all this time, has well earned a chance to go his own way.
Big thanks to The Great Escape for having us at the festival, as always we had the best time (we're exhausted now, please don't make us move until next time). Early bird tickets for next year can be bought here.