Live Review

The Great Escape 2011

It’s fair to say that Sufjan Stevens’ closing set is probably the most highly anticipated of the whole festival.

Tall Ships, The Pav Tav, Friday 13th May

After an afternoon in the Pav Tav filled with the uplifting likes of Dad Rocks!, Cat Matador, You Animal and Ute, early Friday evening sees Tall Ships pull in a crowd that sees the sizable venue become somewhat tighter. With this in mind, most of the audience spend the majority of the band’s set unable to see, except through the screens of several camera phones, but fully able to absorb and appreciate the band’s aural intricacies.

Beginning with ‘Plate Tectonics’, Tall Ships’ detailed song structures unfold and demonstrate the typical twists and turns that their music is comprised of. Although partly instrumental, songs such as ‘Books’ and ‘Chemistry’ continually develop and intertwine layers of loops and riffs with lyrics, showcasing the band’s ability for combining atypical lines within the frenetic music that they play on stage.

While instrument swapping has always been an integral ingredient in Tall Ships’ live set, the band’s latest shows have developed to introduce new ways of incorporating this onstage. ‘Snow’ highlights these changes to perfection, with bassist Matt Parker’s previous antics that involved doubling his strings by throwing Ric Phethean’s guitar around his neck being swapped for crashing symbols, while drummer Jamie Bush switches to bass and allows Phethean to take over his drum kit.

Meanwhile the band eschew their previous night’s performance of ‘Ode To Ancestors’ – a song from their second EP that Phethean informs the crowd has only been played live once – for live favourite ‘Vessels’ seems a wise idea based on the size of the crowd, and as predicted goes down a storm as a wall of noise is formed by the audience’s choral output of the song’s acapella outro.

Rounding off their set with a live rendition of ‘Hit The Floor’, one of the band’s oldest tracks, yet their latest single, a newer and refined live interpretation sees an effective use of loop pedals, with all three of Tall Ships bashing various drum set ups around the stage. With Phethean taking control of the main drum set, Bush takes a single snare over to the far side of the stage as Parker stands on top of two speakers and thrashes a snare from above, all of which is seamlessly executed as they revert to their original instruments for the song’s final frantic minute.

As the set ends, it is almost impossible to move, proof of the trio’s ever-increasing fan base. Today is clearly no exception: judging by the crowd’s reactions to their set, it’s highly likely that Tall Ships picked up a few more fans during their two performances over the weekend.

Lucy Swann, The Haunt, Friday 13th May

Of Norwegian descent, yet with a starkly English accent, Lucy Swann is a delightfully dual musical prospect. Yet her heritage isn’t her only offer of duplicity as her music also readily switches from eerie, yet uplifting electronica, which is completed by a backing drummer and keyboard player on stage, to powerful, soulful solo experiments.

From the heights of The Haunt’s balcony, Swann is completely illuminated on stage, the rest of the venue’s permanently dark surroundings making her all the more obvious on stage. Not that she needs a spotlight to get noticed, as indeed it is her voice that magnetises people towards her multifaceted music, particularly during the more well-known, swelling synth-led songs ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ and ‘Fashionably Late’.

Both powerful and delicate, Swann’s vocals are pristine and exact, whether she’s softly singing amongst a plethora of instruments, beats and synths or whether it’s just her and her voice, acapella, as with her final song of the set. It’s a moment that illustrates a brave move, one that renders her vulnerable and exposed as her fellow musicians exit the stage, but one that pays off and causes justified cheers of delight as she gradually transcends scales before breaking out into a full-blown soprano outburst that sounds simply magnificent. It’s an astonishing way to end her set, and is a technique that, although absent from the rest of her performance, highlights just how versatile Swann is, both on record and live.

And So I Watch You From Afar, The Prince Albert, Saturday 14th May

It’s Saturday and it’s 3pm – the last live slot of the afternoon before an arguably unnecessary four-hour break before tonight’s acts begin their own showcases. Queues are snaking around the entirety of The Prince Albert and many are being turned away at the doors, yet this isn’t completely because this is the last show of the afternoon, but rather an indication of the fact that And So I Watch You From Afar are simply one of the most exciting live instrumental acts around.

As such I spend the majority of their set with about ten others outside the venue’s upstairs entrance, occasionally able to poke my head around the door and peek at what is happening on stage before we eventually manage to squeeze our way inside. Yet visual obstacles aside, the noise that reverberates around and outside of the room is enough to impress even those who can’t see, for theirs is music that is instrumental and powerful: enough to pound your eardrums and not necessarily require sight, or in my case height, to get lost within their set.

Beginning with ‘BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION’, before moving onto ‘Gang (Starting Never Stopping)’ and continuing with the frenzied ‘Search:Party:Animal’, if there was actually any room to move inside the venue then the crowd would certainly be leaping about to the band’s showcase of new material. With the recent release of their long-awaited second album ‘Gangs’ has come a fresh onslaught of new instrumental ear-bashings, but And So I Watch You From Afar dutifully throw a few old favourites too, and so the likes of ‘Set Guitars To Kill’ and ‘A Little Bit Of Solidarity Goes A Long Way’ get a welcome outing. Yet it’s to the band’s credit and a testament to their high-quality new material the audience seems as appreciative and connected to their newer songs as they are towards the band’s older live set staples.

The fact that it’s mid afternoon and that the majority of the crowd are probably nursing two days’ worth of hangovers speaks volumes about the fact that 30 minutes of arresting and stomping guitar-led songs pulsing through multiple hungover heads is a small price to pay for witnessing such a full and frantic show. The only downside is that the band could, and should be playing in a much larger venue and to many more people, many of whom listened outside the venue throughout their whole set. With upcoming festival slots at 2000 Trees and Benicassim hopefully they’ll be more of an opportunity for And So I Watch You From Afar’s fans to catch them in the bigger capacity that they deserve.

Sufjan Stevens, The Dome, Saturday 14th May.

It’s been five long years since Sufjan Stevens last toured the UK, and despite The Great Escape’s impressive line up it’s fair to say that his closing set is probably the most highly anticipated show of the whole festival. Whereas past onstage antics have seen the brilliance of Stevens manifested purely through an accompanying banjo and a piano, after last year’s release of the experimental, electronic ‘The Age Of Adz’ it would be foolish to assume that Stevens’ past simplicity would also remain intact during his live shows. Yet even in anyone’s wildest, most fantastical dreams it would be difficult to conjure up the euphoric expression that affronts the audience in Brighton’s Dome when Stevens and his eight-piece orchestra and two backing dancers take to the stage to perform set opener ‘Seven Swans’.

Scattered amongst the show’s majestic set and grandly executed songs there’s frequent talk of “the cosmos” and at his first opportunity to speak Stevens describes The Dome as “A rocket ship hurtling through a world series of love.” It’s an unexpected declaration, and a continuous direction that takes some getting used to, yet it’s also endearing, and helps to explain the intriguing reasoning behind Stevens’ newer work and thus integrate his audience into his lavish performance.

Yet while visual exemplifications help to illustrate Stevens’ songwriting – such as the winged costumes for ‘Seven Swans’ – it is Stevens’ detailed, and at times lengthy, explanations that give intimate insight into his writing and recording processes. Stevens also reveals glimpses of his childhood fears that have manifested themselves into musical inspiration – his phobia of volcanoes is perfectly painted in ‘Vesuvius’ – and he also delves into his renewed desire to express himself through movement, and not the “restrictive” confines of language. Mid set an entire 10 minutes are dedicated to talking about Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic artist whose drawings inspired Stevens to create ‘The Age Of Adz’ and whose brightly-coloured paintings are often splashed against the large stage screens throughout the performance.

At the show’s core, however, is the feeling of satisfaction from finally being able to understand and appreciate ‘The Age Of Adz’ and Stevens’ last recorded output ‘All Delighted People’, from which the set list’s majority is comprised. Amid the controlled clamour and chaos of his surroundings, Stevens is often seen in the very centre of the stage fiddling with pedals and electronics on the floor, a far cry from his previous live ventures. Suddenly Stevens’ transformation using vocoders, synthesisers and electric guitars makes perfect sense and when these are incorporated and interpreted live into the likes of ‘Too Much’, ‘I Want To Be Well’ and ‘Get Real Get Right’, they simply build upon the lyrics and sense of melody that Stevens has cultivated in the past.

As the end of his set draws near, and the prospect of only one more song looms, it is a welcome surprise that this last ensemble is in fact the 25-minute epic ‘Impossible Soul’. Despite the repetitive choral lyrics of “Don’t be distracted” it’s hard throughout not to be as the 11 performers switch outfits, dance around the stage and the screens transform and mutate into various arrays of moving colours and images around them. Yet despite this sensual explosion of sonance and sight, it is still Stevens himself that completely captivates and captures the audience’s attention and imagination.

As they return for the encore, Stevens and the rest of his musical entourage invade the stage once more, this time clad in everyday clothes, yet losing none of their onstage charisma and energy. ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland’ and ‘Chicago’ end the evening’s two-and-a-half-hour long entertainment, and a hat with a monkey’s head on it gets thrown about the stage and onto various members’ heads, proving that even amongst the renewed relative normality there’s still spectacle and showmanship at the core of each aspect of the performance.

Distanced entirely from the occasionally dark and dingy surroundings of the rest of The Great Escape’s venues, Stevens’ completely mesmerising closing set offers an altogether different experience, one that can be likened more to a musical than a standard show. Seemingly part concert and part lecture, it’s a contentious move, but both undeniably brilliant and joyfully brave nonetheless, especially as the entire venue eventually erupts into a sea of multicoloured balloons, streamers and glitter. Both informative and entertaining, Stevens’ show is utterly unique and is certain to remain etched into memories for years to come. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t wait another five years until he comes back to perform again.

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