“This,” warns my colleague, “is a spectacularly bad idea”‘
“There’s no way you’ll cope.”
And with that endorsement ringing in my ears (note to self: buy earplugs) I set off in the hope of catching 16 gigs in just 12 hours.
My destination is Brighton’s Great Escape Festival, which hosts more than 400 bands in two dozen venues over three days.
Most of them are newcomers – either freshly signed to a record label, or hoping to drum up record label interest. The majority will never trouble a radio station, festival bill or Spotify playlist in their lives. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll spot a diamond in the rough.
Here goes nothing.
Gig one – James Smith
Down on the beach front, former Britain’s Got Talent contestant James Smith is 10 minutes late, immediately throwing my schedule into disarray.
Hard to begrudge him, though, since he’s such a charmer – bashfully introducing a song about letting his ex-girlfriend keep his t-shirts “because they look better on you anyway”.
“I wrote it when I was 15 and looking back on it now it’s a bit cringe,” he admits.
A young Ed Sheeran in the making, he’s all strum and sensitivity – although I could have done without the neutered cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black.
Gig Two – Wood Burning Savages
“This one’s about growing up in Derry,” says Wood Burning Savages’ frontman Paul Connolly.
“It’s called Living Hell.”
The quartet’s rousing rebel rock blows all the early morning cobwebs away – even though we’re in a hotel function room that seems more suited to a speed awareness course than a masterclass in riffology.
There’s a political edge to their music, too – dedicating the song Lather, Rinse, Repeat to murdered Irish journalist Lyra McKee.
“She was the very best of of Northern Ireland,,” says Connolly, “it’s not all bombs and bullets any more.”
“If any members of the Real IRA are here – although I doubt it – they can go suck a brick.”
Gig Three – Emiko
I’ve just realised a major issue with my schedule – I forgot to allow any time for meals.
I know music’s supposed to be the food of love, but I need cold, hard calories. Or hot, soft calories. Any calories will do, as Jason Donovan didn’t once sing.
Fortunately, here’s Emiko with some sweet soul food, gliding up and down the octaves like a modern-day Marvin Gaye as he delivers a set of feel-good R&B.
His unselfconscious positivity immediately wins over the audience. So much so that, when the stage manager tries to cut his set short, the crowd shout him down.
Gig four – Lucia
Glasgow’s Lucia walk on stage like they’ve just arrived from a school production of Grease, sporting pastel suits and slicked-back quiffs. But their set is less Greased Lightning and more Atomic Bomb – a short, sharp barrage of punk-pop explosions.
Frontwoman Lucia Fairfull is a force of nature, glaring at the crowd with a Gallagher-esque, “Who the hell are you?” attitude.
They’re the first band today to feel like the venue’s too small to contain them.
Gig Five – Kitt Philippa
Poor Kitt Philippa is having sound problems. There’s a weird hum on the speakers and the whole band is running around, unplugging keyboards and testing microphones in front of a crowd of almost 200 people. It’s weirdly compelling, like watching a slow train crash.
“This isn’t very fun, is it,?” Kitt acknowledges.
But the chaos is forgotten once the Northern Irish singer finally gets started – the audience leaning in close to experience the quiet tumult of her confessional ballads.
You can instantly hear why Hozier said “impressive is too weak a word” to describe their music.
Gig Six – Realz
There’s only a handful of people here to see grime newcomer Realz, so it’d be kind of us to head up to the front and give him our support. Except I’ve just found a really comfy chair, so I’m taking a rare opportunity to put my feet up. Sorry Realz.
He’s got a song called Underdog, written after a series of career setbacks last year. “Let me in, they won’t let me in, ” he sings in the chorus, “they feel this style is so threatenin’.”
That’s quite the over-reach – Realz is about as threatening as a Jaffa cake – but his melodic flow could see him follow in the footsteps of Not3s and Octavian.
Gig Seven – Rubio
On the 15-minute walk to see Rubio, I discover a chocolate cookie in my coat pocket. It’s been wrapped in tin-foil and carefully inscribed, “To Dad.” At last, the decision to have children has paid off.
Loaded up on sugar, I find myself dancing to the fractured electronic beats of Rubio – the alter-ego of renowned Chilean drummer, producer and Miss Garrison front-woman Fran Straube.
But when she starts shaking maracas and making monkey noises, I decide to cut my losses and go and find some chips.
Gig Eight – Weakened Friends
“Hi, we’re Weakened Friends from New England, and we’re really excited to be here in Old England.”
Gig Nine – Feet
Back on the beach to see novelty hat-wearing, Coventry-based Britpop revivalists Feet (if that’s the name they’re lumbered with, imagine the ones they rejected).
Approximately 10 times less irritating than I just made them sound, their eccentric, unpredictable songs have a distinct Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band vibe.
Still, the amount of effort they’re putting into this performance isn’t quite paying off. The audience are intrigued, not beguiled.
Gig Ten – Inhaler
Inhaler are a Dublin quintet, fronted by Elijah Hewson. As in Paul Hewson. As in Bono. And once you know that, it’s impossible not to hear the U2 singer’s DNA in Elijah’s doleful vocals.
Some of his dad’s songcraft’s rubbed off too. It Won’t Always Be Like This rumbles along impressively, and Ice Cream Sundae sounds like a summer anthem in the making.
Yes, they’ve got a long way to go before they match With Or Without You or One – but that’s not a fair comparison, Judged on their own merits, Inhaler are better than your average indie band; with a sound they can rightfully call their own and more hooks than a coat rack.
Gigs Eleven and Twelve – Pip Blom / Working Men’s Club
When I was planning this exercise, the venues all looked deceptively close to each other on the map. But no, they’re really, really not.
My phone reckons I’ve walked eight miles since midday. I could literally crack nuts with my calves right now.
Anyway, in a rare moment of sanity, I’ve managed to schedule two gigs back to back in the same venue, Hideout, under the arches of Brighton promenade.
I’ve just arrived… and it’s completely full. So I’m listening to Dutch rockers Pip Blom through an open door, standing next to a bin, surrounded by seagulls. I’ve been at worse gigs, to be honest.
They’re followed by Working Men’s Club, who hail from Todmorden, via Italy and Poland.
A sort of post-punk new wave band with shades of Devo and Joy Division, they are thrillingly intense. Singer-guitarist Sydney Minsky-Sargeant somehow makes the lyric, “be happy when the sun shines,” sound like a threat.
Championed by BBC Introducing in Manchester, they seemed destined to set up permanent base camp on the 6 Music Playlist.
Gig Thirteen – Keyah/Blu
I’ve popped next door to Shooshh, billed as, “Brighton’s only VIP Super Club”. Talk about the promise of low expectations.
Worse still, I misread it as “Brighton’s only VIP supper club” and now I’m disappointed not to be watching Michelle Pfeiffer draped over a piano, purring double entendres at The Big Lebowski.
Keyah/Blu is a pretty good substitute, though, with her sparse but atmospheric take on British rap. The South-East Londoner struggles to connect at first but, after a scene-stealing duet with Denzel Himself, she lifts her shoulders and leans into last year’s swoonsome single, Sweet.
“My baby keep it real, my baby keep it cool,” she croons over a minimal, jazzy beat. “Very sweet, very peak.”
Jeff Bridges wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
Gig Fourteen – Fieh
Just as my energy was starting to flag, here come Norwegian eight-piece Fieh with the most infectiously good-natured show I’ve seen in years.
All toothy smiles and goofy dance routines, they’re basically a jazz-pop Banana Splits. There’s even a flugelhorn solo.
Gig Fifteen – Foals
A festival headliner playing in a venue that’d struggle to accommodate an average-sized wedding party. This is the dream ticket.
A friend’s managed to get me into the show – so I suddenly have to run a mile along the seafront to get there before the doors close. On the way, I get tangled up in a silent disco walking tour, with 100 people screaming Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head at some bewildered seagulls.
Tempted as I am to join them, the pull of Foals is even stronger.
“It’s going to be a spicy one,” says frontman Yannis Philippakis – and he’s not wrong.
Just back from a South American tour, the band are match-ready – a lean and precise musical machine, powering through hits like Exit, Spanish Sahara and Inhaler.
And I’d forgotten how funky they are. The basslines on Syrups and My Number are sticky, gloopy doses of hot sauce.
They’ve never sounded better, and Yannis knows it, leaping into the audience and stomping across the bar like he owns the joint.
“This might be the hottest gig we’ve ever played,” he says. “And I love it.”
Foals are ostensibly here to support their record label, Transgressive, which just turned 15, but I think it’s important that bands of their stature turn up to a new music festival like this.
It gives younger acts something to aspire to; and maybe even a kick up the backside, once they see the hard work and stamina that’s required to pull off a show this powerful.
Gig Sixteen – Maisie Peters
Maisie Peters ambles on stage wearing a Clueless t-shirt, championing a film that was made six years before she was born.
But her witty, clever lyrics share a lot of Cher Horiwitz’s coming-of-age concerns – stupid boys, catty girls, and clumsily working out your place in the world.
The late-night crowd’s a bit rowdy for her low-key acousti-pop; and her fans eventually turn on the drinkers with a collective “Shhhhh”.
“I appreciate the shushing,” laughs Maisie. “It’s like we’re in a fun library.”
And with that, I’m done. I’ve clocked up 11 hours, 16 shows and 25,403 steps. My legs are red sticks of fire, and my brain is basically porridge.
I’m not sure I’ve seen the next Adele, but Lucia and Maisie Peters both stand out as artists you’ll be hearing more from.
Equally, no-one was a total disaster, which makes it a little sad to think how hard it is for under-the-radar artists to sustain a career in the industry.
I’ve learned that guitar music isn’t creatively dead, that live music certainly isn’t dead, and that I should pack sandwiches next time.
Not that there’ll be a next time. Right now, I prefer the sound of that fun library.
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