The Great Escape live in Brighton: emerging stars embrace the virtual stage

The beloved new music festival transitions to a one-time virtual offering with a brilliantly curated line-up 

As the UK’s most exciting and eclectic new music festival, The Great Escape is Brighton’s annual feast of discovery. Pre-pandemic, it thrived off a real sense of adventure; over a typical May weekend, punters would sprawl across the city’s many independent venues and bars, and navigate impossibly long queues (and often, foggy hangovers) in pursuit of catching the best and brightest new musical talent on the planet.

And therein lies the magic of The Great Escape; the festival has propelled the careers of thousands of acts by providing them with the opportunity to perform to ardent gig-goers and the wider music scene in intimate settings. It’s a big one for the NME team too; this three day bash is truly unparalleled when it comes to finding emerging artists – and it’s a major, yearly component of our new music coverage.

The decision to cancel and then reincarnate the festival online for the first time in its 15-year history initially came as a particularly tough blow for newcomers at a time when it’s never been more difficult to break through. This industry-populated event has long exposed future stars to label execs, radio producers and beyond, and in turn, has opened them up to a whole new audience.

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That doesn’t mean to say that 2021’s virtual offering won’t have a similar impact, though. This year, tickets are free for music fans across the world, which means that this is essentially the most accessible edition of The Great Escape yet. With over 150 pre-recorded performances on offer, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by too much choice; the adrenaline rush that comes from frantically hopping around seven online channels feels akin to breathlessly legging it down Brighton pier between live sets.

So wonderfully varied and diverse is the line-up here that it’s a shame that the music streams for only two hours a night. Some acts – including the exceptional Genesis Owusu, who confounds and impresses with his jagged jazz-rap crossover, and charming shoegazers HANYA – make for real blink-and-you-miss-it moments, having only been afforded a mere 5 minutes (or less) of the tight schedule.

Still, the things that this format does so well – smooth transitions and thoughtful curation – means that there’s wonder to be found at every turn. And just like any IRL festival, the chaos is truly all part of the fun…

Pop-warping newcomers steal the show

Fuelled by a shared desire to not be bound by genre, the next generation of megastars have started to carve themselves out as a disruptive lot – there are simply no rules anymore. Take PYRA, whose feral future-pop rave sees her sing about consumer culture in a menacing coo; possessed by a punky energy, she head-bangs and tosses her billowing dress around.

Fellow NME 100 alumni Remi Wolf is similarly magnetic. She bounces along to funk-informed hooks and expressive soul stylings in eye-wateringly neon pink fluffy boots, just in case you should lose her amongst the studio gear behind her. Multi-instrumentalist Dan D’Lion’s set-up, meanwhile, certainly makes up for the production value lacking elsewhere: the exuberant beats of ‘Peachy’ glow within a distorted light installation that might as well have been ripped straight from the Tate Modern.

Priya Ragu has everything you could want in a soon-to-be pop icon: surefire bangers, vocal richness and a winning charisma. In lieu of being able to engage with a real-life crowd, she rolls out a playful call-and-response routine with her backing band as the fizzy, Tamil-infused beat loops of ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’ begin to unwind – it’s a bittersweet moment.

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Priya Ragu
Priya Ragu performing at The Great Escape

Bands made for the stage leave us itching for the return of gigs

The Great Escape would typically be exactly the place to watch a bunch of punky upstarts kick some serious shit in their natural environment of sweat-sodden, low-ceiling basements. With the exception of Faroe Island noisniks Joe And The Shitboys – who beam in direct from a lively moshpit in their now COVID-free locality – bands perform from either their recording studios or empty grassroots venues, and dial up the intensity within these spaces to unload a cathartic release after a punishing, gig-less year.

PVAs collision of slick electro-rock and dancefloor subversion is a supercharged experience; the thrashy climax of ‘Exhaust / Surroundings’, driven by its wonky bassline, glimmers of what could have been a mega seaside rave. Others arrive with a wicked ferocity: SPRINTS blitz through tirades against social injustice, while Geese riff, snarl and repeat. The fact that the Brooklyn five-piece are yet to release any official singles but were booked for this showcase is testament to the festival’s underground spirit.

Yard Act pummel straight into a series of jaunty post-punk belters, for which guitarist Sam Shipstone dons a face mask – a reminder that all is still not quite normal. The stomping shoutalong of ‘Fixer Upper’ proves electrifying: a flurry of giggles and vocal squeaks from frontman James Smith contorts the quartet’s regular brand of droll self-awareness.

New names in rap shine bright

With only a handful of rap-leaning acts spread across this year’s smaller-than-usual line-up (the last in-person edition boasted over 450 names), those who feature really make their sets count. Mace The Great is a shining example: in tandem with his snippy flow, the Cardiff MC energetically wields LED stage props as if they are lightsabers.

Bradford’s ever-notorious internet stars, Bad Boy Chiller Crew, overcome patchy mic issues to run animatedly through choice picks from their 2020 debut mixtape and new EP, ‘Charva Anthems’. Recent single ‘Don’t You Worry About Me’ hits like the summer anthem it’s primed to become (the whomping bassline banger is currently scaling its way up the Top 40), before the hyperactive trio launch into a reloaded ‘450’.

One of the festival’s finest displays of musicianship, however, comes from rapper, drummer and producer, Alex Gough. He rolls out withering, impassioned bars from behind his kit, and much like fellow Irish new kid Monjola, delivers an incredibly smooth performance that sees him rhyme over genre-blurring confections of hip hop and soul influences.

Alfie Templeman
Alfie Templeman performing at The Great Escape

Experimental singer-songwriters speak across the gulf

A growing legion of young, bright, boundary-breaking singer-songwriters from across the UK and Ireland possess a fearless sensibility that extends beyond their music to the way they present themselves. Their stories – from personal to universal – such as Tayo Sound’s guitar confessionals of discovery and enlightenment, turn into emotional triumphs upon hitting a live setting – and importantly, manage to connect through the isolation of the livestream medium.

Underneath a subdued light show, Smoothboi Ezra articulates broad topics including dysmorphia and unrequited queer love with startling clarity, while the ragged grit in their vocal rings out unencumbered. Holly Humberstone also glows with a gorgeous sparseness; her clean, earnest tone is gloriously exposed above the minimal piano chorus of forthcoming release ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’.

Intent on recreating the live show experience, Alfie Templeman’s frequently ambitious set charms and delights. ‘Everybody’s Gonna Love Somebody’ and ‘Wait, I Lied’ prove to be a neat one-two, brought home by a series of extended guitar solos from the 18-year-old – one of the few theatrical elements in a relatively unembellished set. Yet much like his innovative contemporaries, he really needn’t rely on spectacle or sensation.

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