...it’s more a mini San Francisco

The nickname ‘London by the Sea’ sells Brighton short - it’s more a mini San Francisco. With it’s own gay pride, an artsy, often eccentric populous with a DIY spirit (“everyone’s in a band or an artist” I’ve heard a few times on local buses), a huge student community, a biggish skate and surf (sometimes) skate scene, plus a strong local musical movement – there’s something about sea side cities that breed creativity.

Without London’s focus on the commercial and crass, bodies battling for air amid the twice daily commute, head down and eyes hidden, Brighton seems to let individuality thrive in a far friendlier atmosphere – perfect for the networking, new band schmooze fest that is the Great Escape.

Like Texas’s South by South West, but by the sea, ‘Europe’s leading new music festival’ takes over every venue in the city for a weekend – with ones to watch flown in from across the globe to play from the roof of a seaside club, to theatres, pubs and sweatbox clubs in between.

The first band I manage to check out at Great Escape are Captain at the Honey Club. Fresh from releasing their second album Distraction, the boy girl vocal duality of keyboardist Clare Szembek and guitarist Rik Flynn is pleasant enough – Deacon Blue esque melancholy pop, with a sparkly sheen. But right now, at the start of a raucous weekend, I’m looking for something more pirate ship chaos than Howard’s Way yacht yuppies.

Almost next door down the seafront, festival favourites the Futureheads are playing at Digital – but with one of the Great Escape’s infamous queues snaking down the promenade it’s looking unlikely that they can squeeze any more punters into the packed venue. However, with the glory of a delegates pass moi gets to jump the queue and head in a side door. As Sunderland’s finest begin with Decent Days and Nights, I’m starting to regret getting there so late: the seething crowd is a viscous, ball of booze fuelled energy, lapping up the sweat and thump-in-the-face style throng – exactly the kind of rambunctious rabble I’m looking for. But, I’m stuck at a side entrance, with a wall of industry types obstructing my view, route to the bar, and getting among the crowd. Second song Broke Up The Time, brings the pogo fest craziness down a notch, still keeping the audience going in an out of time clapathon, but I’m still walled in. So regretfully I get on my bike – literally – and head west to The Old Market in Hove to see Iron and Wine.

With his full on facial hair, and world weary traveller’s tales, Samuel Beam (aka Iron and Wine) promises to be the sea dog I was looking for. Headliner at the Mojo stage in the large Victoriana esque building, the room is crammed full of music connoisseurs and posh ladies in flowery frocks – still engaging with the music, but with a subdued tippsiness, rather than full on drunken rowdiness; Pinot Grigio to Fosters if you like. With a full band behind him, the Texan has developed his Sub Pop folk charm into an almost country-jazz, prog-rock gospel. At the front of the stage like a bearded prophet, Sam’s soft, warm vocals have the wonderful ability to entrance the listener, wooing you into contentment. With strings, prog guitars, slide guitar and keyboards added to the soul searching mix, an Iron and Wine show is an almost spiritual experience. I’m captivated, but know there’s one final leg to my journey - and that is Vampire Weekend.

One down fall of the Great Escape is that, in trying to ram as many amazing bands into the schedule as possible, many of the best are playing at the same time, at polar ends of the city. Getting from Hove to the deep East of Brighton was always an ambitious idea; my plan was to see the first half of Iron and Wine, then the second half of Vampire Weekend at the at the Concorde 2. But fate conspired against me, firstly by getting lost in the back alleys of Hove trying to find the Old Market, and secondly with my most anticipated act of the evening, VW, finishing their set early. Don’t get me wrong; cycling along a quiet sea front at night is pretty fun, but when you’re racing in the dark to see a band, sometimes I wish I could drive. Spying tipsy teenagers stumbling and singing on their way back to town, their numbers increasing as I approached the venue, I realised my attempts to multi gig had been to no avail. Damn. So were Vampire Weekend any good? Just to check, I asked one trio of ladies if they had indeed finished; smiling they confirmed my fears with a yes, as one, grinning from ear to ear, blurted out: “but they were amazing!” As her mates ribbed her (‘don’t tell her that!’), they joined the other happy homeward bound fans, stoked on their first of three nights by the sea. I think you have your answer.

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