Typical. You hotfoot it to a venue in perfectly good time for a band’s last few songs only for a guy outside to all-too-chirpily inform you that it’s the wrong place entirely, so off you wander in a bewildered daze until someone else insists that it was the right venue all along, ferchrissakes, so you peg it back and catch what turns out to be the last reverberating note, the mighty roar, then the singer shouting goodbye and running off to what would clearly be a standing ovation, if everyone wasn’t standing already. Shit.
Such is inner-city (festival) life. That was the memorably named James Gruntz, who we’ll come back to, but Clash sticks around in the circus-like Spiegeltent anyway, transfixed by what looks like a veteran roadie wearing denim hotpants - hey, it’s Brighton. Actually it turns out to be the frontman for the next act, the quirkily poppy Cherie and Renno, better known as two members of the innovative Israeli rock band Izabo. Here the set-up features denim hotpants bloke strumming a viola like a guitar with a motorized fan as a plectrum, and a synth player dressed as an air hostess from the 1970s. Strong look.
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So, yes, it’s the Great Escape 2016 and the world and his wife have arrived to peddle a rich array of musical forms, many of which are markedly different than one’s initial expectations. You might imagine that the aforementioned moniker James Gruntz is a jokey take on James Blunt, for example, like Wevie Stonder, or Com Truise, or Joy Orbison. Or not.
Turns out Gruntz is the grandson of the legendary Swiss jazz musician George Gruntz (oops), but his stuff is more pop-fuelled, and impressively so, bounding effortlessly from awesome funk basslines to more cerebral stuff, even a scat vocal jam which brings the bloody house down.
Thankfully we managed to catch a chunk of his smaller show, at Komedia, part of a Swiss all-dayer; it’s a TGE tradition, whole countries hosting day-parties: India on Thursday, the Dutch on Friday. Mind you, nobody does it like the Canadians, who have basically annexed the Green Door Store for the whole festival.
But their gigs are more fun. Joe Nolan, from Alberta, is a wonderfully rootsy rock-blues dude with the gruff throat of E from Eels and some fine between-song patter. The Edmonton-born LA Foster makes excellent electro-pop and has made an effort with a rather stylish cocktail dress (imagine the exact middle point between Feist and Peaches – that’s her); and the Montreal-based Lebanese duo Wake Island are like Hot Chip gone Middle Eastern/ North American. Cool Chip?
Speaking of Cold Chips, over at the Black Lion pub the bassist from just-off-stage Scouse country-rockers The Hummingbirds (think The Beatles in their Quarrymen days) is carrying one in a plastic case in his inside pocket, intriguingly – he’s presumably saving it for later – then re-stores it hurriedly as the band line up to get their photo taken with a dapper middle-aged chap who turns out to be one of Spandau Ballet, pretty effing randomly. But, hey, Craig David is here this year too. Which isn’t quite up there with SXSW getting the Obamas, but it’s a start.
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Don’t write people off due to a daft name, dull online description or quick glance from a doorway...
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This event can be a reality check. Big pop stars back home in Norway, Highasakite come across like an edgy underground act at TGE – partly because they’re downstairs at the nice but hardly stadium-like Komedia. But the intimate setting suits their leftfield, often Cocteau Twinsy soundscapes, and they revel in it.
Absolutely loving playing at a karaoke bar on the pier, meanwhile, are popular Finnish flag-wavers LCMDF, who do so much speaker-leaping that the less pier-savvy punters look a bit concerned that we might all end up in the sea. There are lots of unhealthy things to do in Brighton, but that seawater is one fluid you definitely want to keep out of your system.
TGE offers a rich array of venues, and varied acoustics. At the Hub club, built into the seafront arches, Leyya from Austria benefits from several compatriots hanging about near the door, actively encouraging punters to go forward, which is handy: what sounded like wishy- washy electropop near the entrance blossoms enormously as you move into the throng, hooks and basslines suddenly bursting forth to tremendous effect.
It’s a sobering thought: how many festival bands have you written off due to just catching a snatch from the back? Likewise the Welsh noiseniks Tibet, looking charmingly incongruous in the old-school glamour of the chandelier-heavy Paganini Ballroom, only really make sense when you push up to their bumpers.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from TGE 2016, then, it’s that your expectations and first impressions of a band are often likely to be way off-beam; don’t write people off due to a daft name, dull online description or quick glance from a doorway. Some of these folks have flown a long way to play.
But, hey, let’s finish with a couple of lazy regional stereotypes. The splendid Pauw, emerging from the jazz-fag fog of east Holland, are tremendously trippy psych-rockers who turn the basement Latest bar into a turn-of-the-70s joint in LA, or NY or, er, Haaksbergen. Ironically, deep down here is one of the furthest places in Brighton from the comforting whiff of weed.
They’re immediately followed by the fascinatingly-named Let’s Eat Grandma; slightly freaky girl sisters from England’s sinister east, Norfolk, who make a glorious atmospheric noise when not pausing for ages to decide whether to swap instruments, or walk off, or take out the entire front row in a wild-eyed pitchfork massacre. They settle for swapping instruments. A great escape indeed.
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Words: Si Hawkins