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Gig Review

Fat White Family / Courtney Barnett / East India Youth / The Amazing Snakeheads / Alvvays / Sean MacGowan / Rah Rah & more
The Great Escape, Brighton - Various Venues

Article written by Alan M - May 18, 2014

Great escape
I’m embarrassed, and a little bit ashamed. The Great Escape Festival (now in it’s 9th year) is on my doorstep, but it’s only this year that I’ve eventually plucked up the courage to make my long overdue debut. On reflection I think there were two main reasons for my abstinence. Firstly, I don’t suit a wristband, owing to my thin wrists, and secondly, stumping up fifty odd quid to see bands I’d never heard of seemed foolhardy and reckless. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The festival experience was brilliant, and I now have a few new favourite bands to show for it. I do however, still look a little daft sporting a wristband.

To paraphrase a mock Geordie warmonger, the secret to a successful Great Escape Festival is Planning, Planning, Planning! To efficiently whittle down a list of over 400 artists requires a robust and foolproof system. Luckily I possess such a system and am more than happy to share this innovative selection process with you. The system works as follows: browse the artist names and their pictures on the festival website, then on a piece of scrap paper, write down the names of all the pretty girls making sure you don’t write down the names of any bands/singers that are too hirsute. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t write down the names of anything that’s sounds a bit ravey.

This methodology left me with a list of about 50 bands/singers that I wanted to see. Patently this was an unmanageable number that had me questioning the reliability of my system. I now had to man up and make some tough choices – but I bottled it. As I procrastinated, my missus kidnapped the scrap paper list and went to work. First to get the chop were a bog standard four-piece indie band I’d included solely on the grounds they were from Essex, soon to follow were numerous identikit girl guitar bands and the massacre ended when we waved cheerio to some soppy soul singer from Finland. She also redressed the gender imbalance and added a few more blokes to the list. Some even had beards. Our list had been reduced to a more realistic 25 or so and we were poised to go. But not just yet, there was a little more planning to do.

OK, so we now had our ‘artists to see’ list completed, but we still had to circumnavigate around the complexities of the schedule. Inevitably there were clashes in the timings and it was with a heavy heart that Benjamin Clementine, Mirror Signal and Gangs were relegated to the subs bench before a ball had even been kicked. Plotting the itinerary for the upcoming three days, I realised it was a distinct advantage being a local lad. This was my manor; I knew my Prince Albert from my Digital, my Green Door Store from my Hope. You won’t catch me looking befuddled, staring at a map, thinking: “Where the fuck is Sticky Mike’s?” The hard work had been done; it was time to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

Day One: Thursday.

Courtney Barnett
Neon Waltz, a Scottish six piece, play some pleasant enough psychedelic tinged indie rock but it’s not their fault they’ve been allotted a lunchtime slot, and with rays of sunshine filtering into the Dome Studio, and with new arrivals carelessly dragging bulky suitcases around the room, it feels like we are in a crowded hotel lobby. The performance becomes secondary as the crowd take time to settle into the rigours of a long three days. I leave before the end of the set as I am determined that I will get in to see Courtney Barnett at Komedia who is playing the first of three dates scheduled at the festival. Rather sheepishly I ask the barman for a half of lager shandy (that’s right, a half of lager shandy) and am compelled to explain that I was ‘pacing’ myself. The barman nods his approval and congratulates me on my restraint, gesturing to a group of lads who have just ordered pints of lager of whom he confidently predicts will be “fucked by six”. See, it’s all about the planning. Courtney Barnett plays solo and is mesmerising. This feels really special to be watching her in a relatively intimate surrounding. I spend the entirety of her twenty-five minute set smiling. It’s a captivating performance and even the most banal between-song-banter “I’m from Melbourne” is greeted with howls of delight. The girl can do no wrong. We are all under her spell and leave as fully paid up devotees.

Emerging into the daylight my phone starts to vibrate. It’s a message from the Great Escape text service. It announces that in 30 minutes Yumi And The Weather will be playing at The Sea Life Centre. I am intrigued and head off towards the pier. The singer is playing an acoustic set and has set up in front of the ‘Make Your Own Badge’ machine. It costs 50p to make a badge, in case you were wondering. She has the most gorgeous, delicate voice and I’m impressed that she can sing amongst the hubbub as mobs of unsupervised schoolchildren rampage past us in search of sharks. I make a mental note to check out the band when they are up to full strength. I head back into town where East India Youth is playing at a horrible little nightclub called Boutique. I am lured here to find out whether this chap is deserving of the industry buzz that surrounds him, but also because the venue is right next door to where I work and it feels somewhat subversive to be drinking so close to where, each day, I strive to be some sort of role model. The venue’s PA does East India Youth no favours and I’m sure there are satisfying sounds being enthusiastically noodled out his laptop somewhere, but we’ve got no chance of hearing them here today. I retreat to a little cubicle at the back of the room where the sound is marginally better, but before I get the chance to have a proper listen, a cry of “Seagulls, Seagulls” punctures through the drone, as some punters good-naturedly taunt a couple of Derby County fans who have bizarrely stumbled into the gig. They leave looking baffled and rejoin their boorish mates at the local Wetherspoons. I leave and meet the missus. That afternoon she has been attending a seminar entitled: Blurred Lines: Does Pop Have A Misogyny Problem? With this question in mind, we are off to see Coely at Audio. She’s 19, from Antwerp and a rap/pop singer. It’s just the type of act that sparked a heated debate earlier today. Unintentionally we have managed to get into the venue before they are ready to officially open the doors. The missus was confidently brandishing her delegate’s lanyard, I’m sporting my retro Adidas track top, so presumably the security thought we were part of Coely’s entourage? Anyhow we are afforded a private listen to Coely soundchecking, which is a real treat. The venue is running late and we witness chaotic scenes as barmaids are roped into erecting advertising signage and drinks are still being delivered. I half expect somebody to chuck me some gaffer tape to help out. Amidst all the drama Coely sits chatting and laughing with her band, no sign of any diva tantrums. And we’ve got the nerve to be absent-mindedly sitting in her artist-reserved cubicle. She doesn’t mind. I like her already. Refreshingly Coely performs without the need to show the audience what she’s had for dinner. Charming, engaging and with a Lauryn Hill vocal style, Coely delivers a brilliant set which includes the magnificent ‘My Tomorrow’. She’s my new favourite Belgian.

We stick around to see Bang Bang Bang. The blurb is promising. About lead singer Natalie Chahal it is said: “This lady has it all: attitude, style, originality and absolute glimmering, spangling and unquestionable star quality”. After two songs I’d like to add to the press hyperbole the word ‘annoying’. That’s OK if you are hidden away behind the drum kit, but not a good attribute for the lead singer. Sorry. We leave. In need of something to replenish our soul we head to the Unitarian Church to see Denai Moore. We are a little bit late and so we have to wait for a song to end before we can enter the room and take our place on a pew. But it’s so worth the wait. Born in Jamaica, raised in Stratford, she’s already attracted the attention of some influential movers and shakers and has appeared on ‘Later’. She plays acoustic guitar and is joined by a bassist/percussionist. The voice is to die for. Her performance is beguiling (‘Wolves’ and ‘The Lake’ featuring), and you can literally hear a pin drop as she wins a new army of fans. She endears herself further to the audience when she messes up the intro to a new song and asks if it’s OK to start again. My only gripe, and coming from somebody who at the age of 11 was cruelly labelled a ‘groaner’ by his music teacher, is going to sound harsh, but at times her diction wasn’t great. The rhythms, her facial expressions all conveyed that these were heart-on sleeve songs, it’s just that at times I wish I could distinguish the lyrics more easily. Like I said, who the fuck am I to criticise? Time is moving on and we are starting to flag. Fuelled by lager shandy the toilet stops are becoming more frequent and darkness is descending.

Raleigh Ritchie at Digital (the old Zap Club) is the perfect antidote to perk us up. Raleigh Ritchie confesses that even he doesn’t know how to describe his music, so it would be inappropriate of me to have a go. So I will simply call him a singer with soul, R&B and indie sensibilities. This is best demonstrated on the track ‘Stronger Than Ever’ where Ritchie’s energetic performance and Digital’s multi-million pound sound and light system combine to create a real tour de force. Eight hours later and I’m back at the Dome Studio to finish the night to see Phox. The place resembles a music venue now, the room is dimly lit, the suitcases packed away and there is a satisfying crunch as you walk across the carpet of discarded plastic glass. A seven-piece from Wisconsin, Phox are the perfect band to bring home to meet the folks. Polite and friendly with pretty harmonies, unthreatening and topped off with a haunting, beautiful vocal. The band play the luxurious ‘Noble Heart’ and I leave with a warm tingle inside me. It’s time for bed.

Day Two: Friday.

Amazing Snakeheads
I’m back at the Dome Studio again. I’m here to see Honeyblood a Glaswegian girl pop-grunge duo of some promise. Actually, I very nearly didn’t see this band at all, as I’d forgotten to factor into account the weather conditions during my meticulous planning. It’s a gloriously sunny day outside and my reactolite glasses are now pitch black as I enter the venue. I climb the stairs and I’m suddenly playing Blind Man’s Bluff to the sound of visceral guitar. I can see nothing. I’m stumbling around, arms outstretched, and spilling drinks – a right nuisance. Seconds pass and my lenses gradually change shade and I am greeted by disapproving looks and the odd hand gesture. I cower in the corner. I stay to hear a few tracks. Within the limitations of the girl vocal, guitar, drum combo genre, they generate a pleasing, albeit heard-it-before-done-a-bit-better sound. Not wishing to outstay my welcome I beat a hasty retreat, back to that diabolical club Boutique to see The Amazing Snakeheads. There’s a buzz about this band and as we queue up I’m starting to get quite excited at the prospect of watching their brooding, menacing version of rock ‘n’ roll which I’m told when played live, leaves an atmosphere of palpable violence lingering in the air. We’ve managed to get within touching distance of the stage so I’m hoping I don’t shit myself. The band comes on stage looking very serious. The guitar and drum playing is loud and rudimentary. The singer struggles to sing. They are trying awfully hard to be hard. I’m sorry but it’s all I can do to stifle a laugh. It’s like I’m watching a ‘Begbie’ from Trainspotting tribute act. The band swig from a bottle of red wine, the singer flexes his muscles, he stares out the crowd and on the few occasions when I could decipher the lyrics, they reveal themselves to be preposterous nonsense about “hiding in the woods because that’s where I play”. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any sillier one of the band attempts to play the saxophone. I’m no expert, but I suspect it’s gonna be a while before he masters the art of circular breathing. The only moment of menace occurs when a lady on the stairs, above me and to my left, starts to dance wildly, which sets off a catastrophic metronomic motion on her plastic delegates lanyard, which nearly takes my eye out.

Alvvays at The East Wing make everything better again. Dreamy Canadian pop tunes, great hooks, played with a shy smile. The keyboard player resembling a female Ramone is an unexpected bonus. ‘Archie, Marry Me’ one of many highlights. I feel cleansed. I hope to see them again soon. It’s just a quick stroll along the seafront, and before you know it we are at The Haunt for Hawk House. They are 3 young Londoners and my missus informs me they are a grime act, and despite myself I have a jolly old time. Lyrically intelligent and thought provoking, with a smooth jazz sound they are poised to release their debut album. I wish them well. We leave before the end because we’re on a ‘3 line whip’ to get to Sticky Mikes to catch Sean McGowan. I had high hopes for this gig and I wasn’t disappointed. He’s brilliant. Inevitably drawing comparisons to Billy Bragg, I don’t see this as a bad thing at all. If I were a 20 year-old singer-songwriter with a social conscious I’d want to be compared favourably to the fella from Barking. Politics. Love. Life. His songs are powerful, poignant and bloody funny. I am so overwhelmed that I buy the CD after the gig and gush: “You’re the best thing I’ve seen so far at the festival”. He says thank you. I’ve just found my new favourite singer.

Fat White Family
Ever since I got hoodwinked into seeing Gay Dad in the late 90’s, as the music press heralded them as The Next Big Thing, I’ve been suspicious of any band touted as the next coming. Fat White Family are this year’s ‘must see’ band. As we queue outside Coalition there is giddy talk of industry buzzes and a stupendous showcase at SXSW. My missus informs me that some of their live shows have featured the band smearing their bodies with butter. Immediately I have decided the band are wankers and I will have to try very hard to be open-minded when they play tonight. It’s rammed in Coalition and we’re dangerously close to the speakers. I’ve never been to a louder gig. It’s deafening but in a satisfying way. The layer upon layer of sound is unrelenting, and just when you think the band have reached a sonic crescendo, they manage to ratchet up the sound to new eardrum-exploding levels. It’s a real assault on the senses and amidst the din there are subtle nuances of melody fighting with the feedback. The lead singer has passed his Rock Star degree course with flying colours. It’s not long before the shirt is flung into the crowd (at a later gig that night he stripped down to his undercrackers) and for the rest of the gig he’s threatening to crowd surf, spraying beer into the audience and generally prancing around at a frenetic pace. It’s over in a flash. I’m pleased I saw first hand what all the fuss was about, and having subsequently played the album, this is a band you should see live. And even though we were spared the butter business, I’m still unconvinced that they are, or will ever be close to their own press hype of being “the best young rock band in the world”. We’ll see. It’s time for something more relaxing so I’m off to the Queens Hotel to see Best Friends. I’m here for three reasons. Nice hotel quality toilets, a clean carpet to sit on, and the band’s combination of Stiff Little Fingers vocal with Wedding Present guitars. And that’s indeed what they sound like. So I go home happy, tired, and tutting about butter.

Day 3: Saturday.

We start the day back at the Queens Hotel to see Japanese singer-songwriter Mayu Wakisaka. The record company have generously laid on a free sushi buffet, but I decline as I’ve just scoffed a fry-up and I can’t risk any gastronomic culture clashes in my belly as we set out on the final day. She has a pretty breathy voice, delivering well-crafted songs, and is politeness personified. It’s a lovely serene way to start our day, but halfway through the set I turn to my wife and we are both having the same thought. She’s Japanese but sounds and acts likes she’s desperate to be Californian. We agree that we wanted her to be more Japanese and also agree that’s probably casual racism so we leave the thought there, and the missus is now guilty that she tucked into the free food. Oh well. Next on the itinerary are Rah Rah playing at The Blind Tiger. I have low expectations from this gig as the band were not on my ‘must see at all costs’ mental list, and I’ve been reliably informed the toilets at the venue are the worst in Brighton. However, from the moment I hear the opening lines “I used to have a guitar…” from track ‘Art and a Wife’ I am utterly and completely hooked. A six-piece from Canada, they have been around for 7 years and it shows in the confidence of their stage performance, and the quality of their songwriting. At the soundcheck I noticed the bass player was playing drums, and it was only when the performance started that I realised why. The band are multi-instrumentalists and in a rather unique revolving door policy they swap instruments between songs, and take turns in providing lead vocals. Normally I find this sort of gimmicky showmanship tiresome and distracting, but Rah Rah manage to pull it off with an infectious sense of fun and spirit that succeeds in taking the audience along for the ride. They’ve even got beards. Wedged behind the amplifiers are six silver letter-shaped inflatables that spell out the band name and during the final song they are released into the audience. As the letter ‘R’ floats towards me I punch the air and send the letter flying back over the keyboard player’s head. It feels like a significant moment. I now have my new favourite band from Canada and the rest of the world.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Neighbour at Sticky Mikes. I once heard somebody say popular music would be dead in 30 years as it’s all been done before, is derivative bollocks…blah, blah, blah. Well, if every band were like Neighbour that person would have a cast iron case. Dreary, aimless, insipid. I’ll stop now. And the singer was wearing a Top Man scarf. Sorry, I’m being spiteful now. There was barely time to finish my half before we rushed for the exit doors. Next stop the Spiegelent to see Nottingham soul singer Harleighblu. There is no doubt she has a classic soul voice, the dilemma is what arrangements to wrap around that stunning vocal. Forever in Amy’s shadow, achieving commercial success as a soul act is a tough ask, but at least she’s in the capable hands of local record label Tru Thoughts. She is also a real trooper, and when we experience a power outage during the set, she invites the audience towards the front of the stage so she can continue her set singing a cappella and once again we are transfixed by the raw beauty of her voice.

It’s decision time. If we want to see Jungle at The Haunt we are going to have to start queuing 90 minutes before they are due to play. It’s worth the commitment. We wait half an hour and get in. Downstairs is rammed and the quota of drunken buffoons roaming around is rapidly rising, so we plump for the upstairs balcony. This is a massive gamble because, unless you are a giant, you can see nothing unless you are in the front row. We are stood in the second row and, not being giants, can see nothing. Our only hope is one of the front rowers needing a piss, or collapsing, or falling over the balcony. With 10 minutes to the start of the gig our chances are looking bleak, but then a miracle. A lady in front row loses her composure for a split second and leans across to kiss her bloke. This romantic interlude creates a slither of opportunity and quick as a flash, the missus has wedged herself into the breach and secured a front row spot. Then ensues some negotiations and I’m allowed to squeeze in alongside her under some spousal etiquette law and so with seconds to go we’ve blagged the best view in the house. Jungle have been described as a ‘collective’ but please don’t let that put you off. Fronted by two keyboardists/vocalists, we have guitars, drums, percussion and 2 backing singers, who create an infectious dance groove that even the most leaden-footed punter is forced to succumb to. The mesmeric beat surrounded by the subtleties of the rhythm section, reinvigorates our tired bodies and provides the perfect finale for my first Great Escape adventure. Don’t believe the hype, new music is alive and kicking.


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