Thursday, 21 May 2009

Great Escape Festival Day 3

What better way to start a Saturday than with a secret fans-only gig by Ben Kweller, in a tent? Gigwise, like most other punters at The Great Escape, heard about this and seemingly hundreds of other gigs throughout the weekend by signing up to an invaluable texting service (though the text-a-minute tip-offs did begin to grate a little towards the end). Never one to disappoint, Kweller took requests from the crowd, encouraging sing-a-long renditions of ‘Penny On A Train Track’ and ‘On My Way’, before trying to flog his new album for a tenner at the end of the set, in true troubadour style. Maccabees brothers-in-arms Felix and Hugo were spotted singing along, word-perfect. “The only person I wanted to see was Ben Kweller!” an overexcited Felix told Gigwise at the end of the set.

Saturday’s big news was the not-so-secret Babyshambles gig, which saw Pete Doherty and co. play a six-songs to hundreds of festival-goers at Audio. Those who wanted to attend had to apply for separate tickets, but even that didn’t stop the waiting crowds from queuing round the block hours before the venue even opened. Pete seemed in reasonably good form considering he’d come straight from an impromptu Libertines reunion in London the night before, even managing to head a football kicked up to him by the crowd mid-set.

That night, in Audio’s basement, Fight Like Apes unleashed ferocious sweaty screamy-pop on an unsuspecting, beer-swilling audience. The programme described them as having spent ‘the majority of the past 12 months ram-raiding their don’t-take-no-for-an-answer songs in people’s ears’, and the ram-raiding continued unabated in Brighton. A short while later, on the same stage, San Diego garage rockers The Soft Pack played their second gig of the weekend. The soundsystem didn’t do them justice, but they impressed nonetheless, imparting fuzzily distorted riffs and disaffected obscured vocals to a rowdy crowd that threatened to erupt into full-on rioting – the gig was a definite Escape highlight.

Night-time revellers were low on the ground for the grand finale, perhaps the result of it being the third night of wind-beaten city trudging, but the cosy upstairs of Ocean Rooms busied slightly with the friendly fans of Post War Years, and their polished, punctuating, bleepy indie. Scheduled entertainment was equally thin on the ground after the midnight hour, but those with the stamina graced a marquee dance tent for Queens Of Noize’s very own cocktail of eighties pop and rock, that veered towards the bland as the night drew to a close. No bother – Great Escape had already re-instated itself as the best of the inner-city festivals. As the Camden Crawl with added seaside and cider, it’s pretty hard to beat.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Great Escape Festival Day 2

There were plenty of hungover gig-goers as grizzly as the weather when Friday came around. Daytime shows at Above Audio were sparsely attended, but that didn’t stop San Franciscan fourpiece, Love Like Fire, from playing a full-volume set of grinding guitar riffs and shouty vocals courtesy of frontwoman Ann Yu. James Yuill followed with his own especially enticing brand of bedroom laptop-pop, still managing to look incongruously the nerd even when surrounded by carefully styled Brighton geek-chic. By the time cheery Norwegians Casiokids took to the stage at 3pm the bar was full of the slow-to-emerge Escapers all hoping that some uber-happy Scando-pop could sooth aching heads. Entertaining haircuts aside, blissed-out saccharine songs were just too sweet for our ears, so we headed for one of Brighton’s many punter-filled pubs to find shelter from the storm in large pints of the best southern cider.

Evening entertainment kicked off at the Sallis Benney theatre, where the student cafe served fruit by the piece and cheap tea with portion packets of digestive biscuits, just like a student canteen should. Veils positively tumbled onstage at 6pm – frontman Finn Andrews breathlessly explained that they were “a little disorganised.” The New Zealanders are currently mid-tour promoting album Sun Gangs, and there was an urgency about the performance that Fin later put down to his being used to a ninety-minute touring set, rather than the standard festival thirty. “I kept thinking that thirty minutes is the length of an episode of The Simpsons, which actually seems quite long,” he mused to Gigwise backstage.

Micachu And The Shapes seemed much more comfortable with the rather stuffy industry crowd, chatting amicably with the audience between songs of meticulous pop chaos. One punter was overheard groaning “This music makes me feel so old!” To the contrary, it was very easy to see why Micachu has garnered such a high profile this year – who else could make catchy pop out of vacuum-cleaner samples and a battered, strung up acoustic?

Twilight settled into Brighton’s colourful lanes as Vivian Girls rattled the walls of the Pavillion Theatre with the kind of ballsy bitch rock that could incite impromtu violence against bras. Their set ended with a slick manoeuvre involving them each exchanging instruments without stopping playing – testament to their hefty use of distortion and pedals if nothing else.

Next door in the enormous school-sports-hall of a Corn Exchange, Club NME played host to a considerably younger crowd, who sat cross-legged in clusters on the laminated floor, waiting for neo-folk fourpiece Mumford & Sons. The effects of a day of free-flowing lager were becoming more apparent by the time the wholesome-looking band graced the stage at 11pm – and despite the fact that most of Mumford & Sons’ songs embrace subject-matter that tends towards indulgently melancholy, the venue erupted into zealous jigging and uncontainable grinning. It must have been the banjo (or maybe banjo-player Winston Marshall’s hilarious chicken-like dancing). They claimed it was the biggest gig they’ve ever played, and with an album on the way later this year, things are looking increasingly rosy for Mumford and his progeny.

Metronomy rounded off the night in their usual, infectious electro-vein, but with the added extra-excitement of a completely new line-up including Gbenga Adelekan on bass and one-time Lightspeed Champion drummer Anna Prior. Oscar Cash, on keys, was still affecting the robotic dancing and stylised pouting of Metronomy’s trio days, which made him look like a bit of a twerp, but the new band line-up was an resounding success, giving tired songs from album ‘Nights Out’ an unexpected vitality. If only the same could be said of the drunken punters who wobbled out into the night as the gig finished.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Great Escape Festival Day 1

Part punters’s piss up by the sea, part industry conference, Brighton’s Great Escape festival has established itself as one of the UK’s leading searchlights in the hunt for new talent. True to British seaside tradition, festival-goers can divide their time between arcade games on the pier, ice creams on the pavilion and fish and chips on the beach, or over thirty venues hosting live entertainment from undiscovered and established artists from all over the world. And while the city’s pretty well infested with those carrying ‘delegate’ passes pushing in all the queues (30% of those in attendance are in the business), there’s so much going on that you’d be hard pressed not to discover something special, even if you didn’t quite manage to get into Kasabian.

Brighton welcomes everyone with bad weather on the Thursday, which puts a damper on the trudge between venues. Brighton town proper is relatively small, however, and endowed with a huge number of gig venues all marked on a dummy-proof map, so it’s still fairly simple finding something to suit. Deadpan Londonite Emmy The Great kicks off proceedings at Digital with her delicate mix of acoustics and understatement. While Emmy is as enchanting as ever, the venue is ill-suited to her sound, and songs dissipate in the beery chatter of the crowd, loosing their poignancy somewhat.

Meanwhile down at Concorde 2 youngsters Bombay Bicycle Club have caused a bit of a ruckus in the rain – their gig is heavily oversubscribed and most of the hopeful fans are turned away at the door, left to trudge back down to town and see what else is on offer. A few early gatherers at the Corn Exchange catch noisy Brooklyn duo The Hundred In The Hands, who’ve begun to build a solid reputation from their raucous live performances. Tonight, however, a large proportion of the audience is still sitting in wait for Thursday’s big gig: The Maccabees.

Fresh from a UK tour in which they launched much anticipated new album ‘Wall Of Arms’, Brighton boys The Maccabees are on happiest on home soil, and their set plays out like a huge sweaty homecoming party. There’s the usual favourites from debut ‘Colour It In’, but some of the best received material comes fresh from their more recent release, including a joyous ‘Kiss And Revolve’ that threatens to see the riotous crowd lift off from the floor entirely. It’s a fitting welcome to Brighton – and judging by this reception no one present would be rather be anywhere else.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Madness Interview

So you’re skint, right? And everyone’s talking about how they’ve got no money, and the TV keeps telling us we’re all going to die of swine flu, and the fleeting sunshine has been replaced by those familiar black clouds. God love England.

Some things can be relied on though – Domino’s pizza is doing alright. Lager’s still on tap. And Madness are making a comeback ten years after their last album, with a record about London, no less.

Crafted with an Oliver Twist narrative borne of history, mystery and spectacle, The Liberty Of Norton Folgate explores London’s dirty little corners, sweeping out the oddities for inspection, and putting the city’s story to the tune of a full-scale orchestra. It’s as gleeful as ‘Our House’ was back in 1983. If the hoards of fans screaming every word in the backstreets of Camden at this year’s Camden Crawl are anything to by, it doesn’t matter one bit whether you fell for Madness back in seventies, or you didn’t hear ‘It Must Be Love’ until its rerelease in 1991. Madness are a band of the people, for the people, and they’re back to put a bit of cheer into our downtrodden, recession-filled lives, as Chas recently told Gigwise…

It’s been a decade since you last wrote an album. Why the comeback?
We began in a recession, in a difficult time for the country. It was a wave, so there was something being expressed by The Specials, Madness, The Beat. Then we reformed, again in an economic recession, almost because people wanted us to. And now we’re back in a recession again, and this album is the third energy bubble. I like to think of Madness as a bright shining bit of joy.

Where did the idea for the album initially come from?
Because we’ve been together for so long, it’s difficult to say who said what, when, and we’re it begins. It came from an interest in London, it came from wanting to express that interest, it came from Patrick O’Brien mentioning the Liberties [Norton Folgate is pocket of land in London excluded from the normal legal system of the UK], it came from Sugs reading Peter Ackroyd, it came from me reading Ian Sinclair – it also came from that side of us that likes to be a bit theatrical, you know? There’s elements of Beckett in there, there’s elements of Oliver Twist – when we’re touring we listen to Snow White & The Seven Dwarves and Tommy Cooper, because we get a buzz off that, that’s what we do. I think Madness has got a joyous thing about it – we’re more post-war than we contemporary – we were born around the fifties and early sixties.

What about Madstock, why are you bringing that back?
Madstock is a brand – I want us to be building that live. I don’t really care much about records and recording, I like the live experience. It’s financially sensible because you get 85% instead of 20% on a record.

Speaking of financial incentives – is that why you’re making a comeback?
No, not at all, it’s not like that at all. In fact I get bored with this – you don’t ask an actor if they’re acting in a film because they need the money. I’m an artist, you know.

You feel like you have things to say?
Absolutely, I think it’s a credible album and I think it’s worthy of being released. Someone like James Brown goes on for thirty years playing the same set – but for us it’s not about the same set, it’s about delivering something that people expect and want.

So you feel the pressure to deliver something of a certain quality?
No, not at all. Selfishly, we write for us.

But there is an element of trying to cheer everyone up a bit.
Sure, we play old songs, and when we play new songs we slowly introduce them over time. We’ve got such an extensive back-catalogue that it’s really easy – we can choose between our original songs, a ska-set, and a whole Liberty Of Norton Folgate set – so we change the sets depending on the territory and who we’re playing to.

What about The Specials, are they going to be appearing at Madstock?
Hmm, how can I put this – not if I can help it. I believe that Jerry Dammers started The Specials, I believe he’s a genius, and I think it’s very sad that the band can’t reconcile their differences. [Dammers hasn’t played with The Specials since the 1980s] Music should be a unifying thing, you know, and it just doesn’t feel right to me, to be honest. I know that I’m not meant to be saying these things, and that it’s political but I can’t be arsed with all that – it’s not the real deal.

You don’t want them to play?
I don’t want to stop anyone from what they’re doing, it’s their choice, but do I want them to play? I would feel like I was betraying Jerry in some way, and I wouldn’t betray someone as a matter of principle.

So that’s a no.
That’s a definite, resounding fuck off! [uncomfortable pause] I didn’t mean you! It’s difficult, it’s difficult because they’re a fucking great band. But the fact is that they can’t play original songs due to this rift. I want to mediate and have a little chat with all of them, you know. One thing that Madness is good at is sticking together and being truly friendly. The trouble with The Specials is that they weren’t friends before they were a band, you know. But I love them all individually, seriously, they’re good people.

Do you stay in touch with what’s going on in music at the minute?
I’m listening to Lily Allen’s album, to Elbow’s latest album, I’m listening to The Cinematic Orchestra…

But do you care what’s going on, in terms of what you actually do?
I like to see what cuts the ground a bit, you know – if it’s been in print for fifty years then I’ll read it. I’ve run a record label before, but now, I feel like I don’t need to know what’s going on. I’ve stopped reading newspapers, I’ve stopped watching television, and I don’t want 57 megahertz in my mind, I want 8 megahertz and a fireplace. My truthfulness to my voice is all that matters.

Is this the start of a new chapter for Madness?
I totally see it that way, I see this as the third cherry bomb – boom!