The Best Acts at The Great Escape 2016 (that I saw)

Sorry for the quiet spell on the blog, it's been quite the time... I'm back from The Great Escape (my ninth time) in one piece, more or less, and in lieu of a full day by day recount of the weekend and the thirty odd bands I saw I'm going to cherry pick the absolute best. I'm also going to stop waffling and get on with it.

Hyphen Hyphen
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Friday at Brighthelm

Yes. This was the one TGE 2016. 

Hyphen Hyphen are a French electro pop quartet whom appear to be pretty popular in their home country (so much so that they won best live act at the 2016 edition of their Brit Awards equivalent - I now know why) but I'd never heard of until looking for a band to end my night on Friday, I went with Hyphen Hyphen simply because I'd already seen Ary three times this year and their description on the festival app (which was much improved this year, just missing Spotify integration and defaulting to the correct time on the line-up page in my opinion) sounded interesting. The show was their live UK debut and will certainly not be their last, surely soon to be singled out by bigger and better blogs than this as a future crossover artist (with 1.3M views on their "Just Need Your Love" video perhaps they already have).

It took about a minute to fall in love with the band, emblazoned in warpaint and radiant smiles and just about long enough for front-woman Santa to catapult from the side of the stage and launch into the first of the bands hypnotising songs. I've seen some commanding leads in my time and Santa immediately joins the select best, filled with a boundless energy that sees her catapult around the stage quicker than anybody I've ever seen in my life and coupled with this incredibly powerful voice, each song filled with soaring, ethereal melodies, glistening 80's keys and tribal drums and after half an hour passes in the blink of an eye I'm itching for more. Unfortunately it is 2am and the venues security are quickly chucking everyone out of the room before we can even give them the reaction they deserved.

This is how to put on a show.

I'm later asked to describe them and the best I can muster is London Grammar on acid, that'll do for now. Go and discover them yourselves UK.

Muna
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Saturday at Coalition

Another band making their debut UK performance this weekend and another set to hit the headlines, LA's Muna performed a ridiculously accomplished set of their flickering, 80's indebted pop-rock. They also received the absolute biggest reception of any band I saw at the years festival. It was similar to last years Aurora show in the same venue, the audience immediately putty in the hands of a band clearly on their way to bigger things (it probably helped that the band clearly had a handful of friends in front rows whom knew every word to every track).

"Loudspeaker" is a song I featured on this blog a year ago, the name of their recently released EP and the bands closing track. It's glistening dark pop filled with crystalline vocals and the perfect summation of the girls sound, undoubtedly likely to draw immediate Haim comparisons although much more cinematic with each polished guitar hook, pulsating synth beat and rich vocal washes over you with a rich, warming glow. You feel like you're starring in your own 80's montage. 

I'm pretty soon making an unscheduled trip back to my nearby hotel room to drop of the bands vinyl.

Dream Wife
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Friday at Photomatic

Packed into a tiny shop in the lanes, handed a free beer and sweating profusely; pretty much the ideal situation to finally catch Dream Wife live I'd say.

The Brighton based band did not disappoint in their home town with a raw, shrill and energetic show that reminded me of a slightly more pop Dolores Haze (whom I'd caught up with again after seeing twice, quite brilliantly at By:Larm in March the night before). Rakel Mjöll's vocal changing from innocent pop sweetness to snarling, ferocious bite in the blink of an eye amongst driving grunge rhythms, killer pop hooks and chaotic drums, the packed room lap it up and my friends who see the band at one of their other shows return with similarly positive reviews. 

Noisy, aggressive, poppy, brilliant.

Julia Jacklin
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Thursday at Komedia and Friday at The Haunt

I have one simple question to ask you. How the fuck had I not heard of Julia Jacklin until the day before The Great Escape? Not only seemingly one of the talked about acts of SXSW this year (and soon to be the same after her shows at TGE) but every drop of her music couldn't be any more 'me' if she had come into my house, taken my record collection and tried to replicate it. 

Both of her sets I catch are chocked full with wounded country ballads that are akin to Angel Olsen and Caitlin Rose, filled with stirring electric guitars from her wonderful backing band (when the sound desk broke at The Haunt and caused a twenty minute delay they took to some impromptu jamming - I doubt Julia will remember the second half too fondly, the mix was certainly not as you'd like) and intimate, honest lyrics.

"Pool Party' closed both sets and is Julia's debut single, it sums up the shows, a combination of swelling instrumentation and devastating voice that makes you linger after her every word, it's achingly pretty, beautifully sad, outrageously brilliant. 

She plays in London again tomorrow before returning in September. That's pretty good news.

Al Bairre
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Thursday at The Prince Albert

2015's TGE highlight Al Bairre return a year later to pretty much the same reaction, 'oh fucking yes, this is awesome'.

The Prince Albert stage is tiny, it doesn't lend itself too well for a band as boundless as Al Bairre but it's okay, bouncy indie-pop knows no boundaries and soon enough the afternoon crowd is nodding along to each rhythm and smiling to every infectious, exhilarating track. The good news is this year I know the words to most of the tracks and I'm left grinning like a slightly mad cat, a slightly drunk cat too as I'd perhaps had a few too many beers in the afternoon beforehand.

I said it last year, I'll say it again. Go and listen to this band now. Two sold-out shows in London either side of the festival signal people are. 

The Big Moon
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Saturday at Komedia

I think this is my fifth time seeing The Big Moon already (not my last) and easily the best, a new track kicks off the set and it's brilliant. It sets the tone for a great 'matinee' show to please a packed early Saturday crowd.

Fun and engaging, polished and charismatic, the quartet whirl through half an hour's worth of brilliant guitar pop, there's killer hooks at almost every turn, plenty of shredding guitar duals and enough singalong choruses to pack a stadium.

With tracks like "Cupid" and "Sucker" already in their arsenal, the future keeps on getting rosier for this outstanding quartet. 

Dagny
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Thursday at Komedia

Now signed to Island Records (which will hopefully mean we'll have some more music to share soon) Dagny is surely a shoe-in to appear on pretty much every 'Sound of 2017' list and now I've seen her a couple of times, I'm happy to be along for the ride.

There's an additional guitarist at Komedia in comparison to the show I caught at By:Larm and it only adds to the dynamic performance. I love the fact she employs a real band around her, I do struggle with singers and laptops, the live band not only makes for a compelling live show but adds so much 'feeling' to the music over a digital backing. I'm running out of things to say about "Backbeat" so I'll just say this, magic.

Aldous Harding
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Friday at Paganini Ballroom

Playing exactly the same venue as twelve months before Aldous Harding is the real deal. It's a set that's entirely made up of new music from her amusingly titled forthcoming record Party and one that beguiles from start to end.

Her music is fascinating, the first four track all see Aldous on her traditional acoustic guitar playing long-lasting finger-plucked melodies filled with wounded tales of personal battles and losses before she switches to vocal duties alongside a friend playing keys and changes key completely, from heartbreaking whispers and spine-tingling emotions to strong, defiant bellowing and dramatic arm movements which both have the audience equally transfixed throughout. The set, as the year before, is littered with Aldous' dark humour and unnerving faces, you aren't quite sure if theatrical or real, I think it's probably both. 

Don't miss her when she returns to the UK later in the year.

Ekkah
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Saturday at Synergy Centre

I already knew that Ekkah knew how to get the party started, now I know they can end one too. Ending Saturday with a typically disco-laced set in the strange surroundings of Synergy Centre to a healthy crowd who danced away like the venue was still the night club it was some years ago (and I can remember go to when I visited a friend at uni some dozen years ago). 

"Last Chance to Dance" sums it up perfectly, just listen to that bass-line. Its funky throwback melody moulded with infectious hand-claps and ultra smooth vocal hooks sound like the love child of The Jackson 5 and 80's Madonna and the result is just is good. "

The absolute highlight though is the look on everyone's face as they enter the building after being ID'ed (and I'm talking everyone, especially Robin at Breaking More Waves).