The Eurovision Song Contest might have its own legion of followers, but you don’t have to look further than Brighton’s The Great Escape festival for international appeal. Taking over the seaside on the very same weekend, the annual event’s line-up serves up a Continental as fine as it does fish ’n’ chips and 2022’s event was no exception. Amongst 185 international acts on the bill, here are some choice artists (in no particular order) who ensured their busman’s holiday was well worth every mile travelled.

BRIMHEIM (Faroe Islands via Denmark) @ Waterbear Venue

Don’t let the pearls and prairie dress fool you; Helena Rebensdorff means business. “Ok, can we get started now?” she asks the back of the room, teeth gripping the pick between her lips, as bodies continue to pile in and plug the gaps of an already at capacity audience. With the answer affirmative and her four band mates nestled into the archway behind her, they launch into tracks from her frank album can’t hate myself into a different shape: each one a delicate unfurling of the truth. Stripped back intros lure listeners into a false sense of security before anthemic blasts of synth and guitar-fuelled shimmer. Making way for a simple vocal, her voice soars impeccably with vulnerability in its wake; embittered with Sharon Van Etten disdain, she is disappointed in you, herself and the world around her, under scathing Este Haim grimace. Placing her instrument aside for elegant highlight ‘baleen’ feeder’ she sings, “I wish I didn’t care what you think of me,”  her hands playing at her body, hinting at its meaning. It’s fitting “Brimheim” means ‘home of the breaking waves’; her first UK show ever, just metres from the ocean, might be uncharted waters but this afternoon she has transformed this beachside cavern into a new home on the range.

JAYWOOD (Canada) @ Green Door Store

With guitar worn high on his hip and Looney Tunes Space Jam t-shirt the uniform of choice, this afternoon, with 3-piece band in tow, Jay is playing feel-good cosmic jams of his own; alternative funk pop melodies flowing with danceable grooves and pounding bass from his forthcoming Captured Tracks LP. Like dreamily mellow affirmations of positivity glimmering within the dark, “This is brand spanking new,” he introduces of uplifting soul-funk number ‘Just saying.’ Guitar down and ringleading the Canada House audience in a singalong; his percussive set overflows with the warmth of Toro Y Moi summoning the summer, emitting uplifting festival vibes – even if his hometown of Winnipeg couldn’t be further from Brighton beach. “We’re from the prairies, our roads are fucking trashed don’t come,” he jests by way of respect for his newfound audience. “You guys have the fucking ocean, why would you ever leave?” Banter, like the songs, is strong; Canada quite literally is in the house and even inside, the sun is shining.

PARTY DOZEN (Australia) @ Komedia Basement

Whatever you do, don’t look saxophonist Kirsty Tickle in the eye. Her mouth may be preoccupied with another blast on the horn hanging around her neck, but head and gaze are the source of encouragement as her urgent nods and po-go bounce swiftly gee up those braving the front row. Like a punked-up snake charmer unleashing a tirade of pent-up stress relief, she loops squelch with an array of pedal effects before tilting the sax sideways and wailing down its bell, causing distorted vocals to escape like a manic megaphone. Behind her, percussionist Jonathan Boulet thrashes away on drums and, almost drowning out the hefty industrial chinks and throbbing bass of the Viagra Boys meets Zombie Zombie krautrock style backing track, the pair playfully call En Garde in a sonic duel without words, each frantically cranking up the dial whilst trying to catch the other out. With just two members on stage it could be the most exclusive social gathering ever, and yet, everyone’s invited.

JOHN MOODS (Germany) @ Patterns Upstairs

John Moods’ work here is done. Not because the smell of BBQed frankfurters in the air or the empty boozy miniatures and bottle tops strewn about the tables suggest a well-thrown Zeitgeist German showcase party; it’s that every single face about the room is sickeningly smacked with the glee of a kid at Christmas. Satisfied with his labour – a set of dreamy, romantic ballads and good vibes sung whilst bouncing between the light vocal harmonies and flute of his Mood-setting colleagues – he declares “Now for the announcements,” whilst unwrapping a scroll of paper like a town crier without a bell. After notices about his new album, merchandise and messages of thanks, John drops off the low stage and roams about the audience for one final scout around under the venue’s upturned UFO shaped silver canopy. Looking everyone in the eye with appreciation, the aftermath of a party it’s not, but a soothing treat for the last ones standing. Mood by name, mood by nature.

BUDJERAH (Australia) @ Prince Albert

More storyteller than songwriter, there’s something incredibly enchanting and impressive about how Budjerah can silence the usual chatter of a Great Escape venue. The evening crowd are hung on his every word which is sung as well as spoken; each breath is a soulful vocal drawn from the inside looking out. Between the brave opening cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’,  and original song ‘Missing You’ about the time he missed friends after dropping out of school in pursuit of a record deal, he shares proud stories of his indigenous roots, songwriting partners back home, and musical influences (namely D’Angelo and Amy Winehouse who played London’s Jazz Cafe where he recently “got to perform”). Serenading the audience with his own reworking of an Ed Sheeran song, he politely gestures to his hand-painted guitar which depicts the story of his own life from his upbringing in church and love of soul music to the meaning of its “fish” representing his original song “My Name.” Don’t forget this one.

A.O. GERBER (USA) @ The Mucky Duck

Friday 13th was always going to rear its ugly head in unexpected ways. For A.O. Gerber, it’s the sticky keys on her keyboard which are causing problems. Most might quit, but smiling through, she confesses and moves on with an inspired method of distraction. “Have you all met my sound tech Phoebe?” She gestures right. “Everyone say hello!” Phoebe waves and between the pillars in this small pub, A.O. continues to perform an intimate set of meandering songs from her debut album Another Place To Need. Despite the Open Mic setting, with tables moved out to make space for the day-long Hand In Hive / Sub Pop showcase, ‘In The Morning’ is beautifully heartbreaking (“Wish I could drown this fucking heart of mine”), ‘Tell Me’ is a hauntingly delicate acoustic ballad bringing to mind Angel Olsen, and A.O. ‘s simple, less-is-more fusion of guitar with keys and Casio style drum beats brings to mind the DIY ethos of a less weird Tickley Feather. The songs are confessional, as from a cathartic need to be written and performed, lending themselves to a personal portrait of an artist who writes in solitude from within the confines of her home. It’s a set proving that frustration is often better out than in.

HATIS NOIT (Japan) @ St Mary’s Church

Call it witchcraft or hypnosis, Hatis Noit knows how to cast a magic spell. Tonight, mobile phones are silenced, and standing tall, a Bjork-like resemblance of a beating heart in red dress, matching unicorn horns nosepiece, and gently holding a colour-coordinated microphone, Hatis is a scarlet sorcerer summoning the outside elements as her operatic chants of layered Gregorian vocals rise above a backing soundtrack of waves and seagulls. Singing in Japanese, her songs convey joy and the emotion of triumph over tragedy, particularly when referring to the Tsunami which caused a nuclear power plant disaster for families in her hometown. Haunting, it resonates among the church pews meeting stunned silence as she gracefully delivers her message to the heavens for any angels listening in. Her delivery is disciplined, rising above motorbikes rumbling outside, a phone dropping between in pews at her most a cappella moment, and even when a ghostly piano and choir of male voices from next door resound to steal the limelight. “Thank you for having us,” she beams, perhaps alluding to the many layers of her vocal personalities.

GRACE CUMMINGS (Australia) @ Komedia Basement

Watching Grace Cummings is a transcendent experience. With a roar as though rising from the depths of Laurel Canyon itself, the hefty tones of fellow Grace (Slick), Janis Joplin wail and contemporary rasp of Brittany Howard with Stones and Zeppelin Classic rock ferocity, this afternoon’s audience is being transported to the 1970s. With lyrical licks about leaves and cowboys, it’s a powerfully driven ride across a wild and free natural landscape which spirals off into the sonic abrasion of her denim clad band members whose separate parts instinctively meander together. “Are you ready?” she asks, her satin shirt shimmering under the spotlight. “Yeah!” exclaims a voice from the sound desk, confirming the techs are strapped in for the ride. “Thanks for giving time to an unwanted instrument,” Grace tells the crowd by way of an introduction, possibly referring to the opening number’s use of keyboard which remains redundant for the set remainder, in favour of a storm of spiralling guitars around her. ‘Heaven’ is a closing call to arms; with a low growl of “Ave Maria ” and shimmering percussion, the band play out the final bar over and over ten times or more giving an age-old saying, new life.

KRAPKA;KOMA (Ukraine) @ Zahara

“Everyone knows what’s happening, and what our songs are about,” quietly intones Alona Kovalenko (Koma), sitting conspicuously between keys and drum pads in her monochrome trouser suit. To her right, Ira Lobanok (Krapka) assesses the crowd, in equally eye-catching electric blue, from behind the shield of her open laptop. “We are proud to be the voice of our country at this Great Escape.” A multi-instrumental electronic duo from Lviv, it’s not surprising to see, under the neon rainbow strip lights of this basement, a room full of those showing their support to the only Ukrainian band performing at this year’s event. Despite technical issues enforcing a 30-minute delay and a painstakingly gaffa-taped backdrop giving up mid-set, the pair – alongside visual artist Becky-Boo (who, side of stage, occasionally turns her head to pull faces at crowd whilst conducting projections of crashing waves and flickering faces behind the duo), and vocalist Pixi Ink – treat the audience to some dreamy downtempo magic. To use their namesake (“semicolon” in English); it’s a colourful, glitchy and trippy set of soothing electropop soundscapes hinting at the free Jazz of their backgrounds. A tote bag bearing the flag of their country hangs from the table with the words Good evening, we are from Ukraine in their native language. It’s perfect product placement for a good evening indeed.*

NAYA ALI (Canada) @ Green Door Store

If the world was about to end, Naya Ali would be the one to save it. “Alright, let’s keep the shizz going,” she declares through her grill, before turning towards her beats-maker sidekick to check he’s good to go. Launching into a rap attack of positivity, the long straps of her Mission Impossible style dungarees swing behind her as she bounces stealth-like – a graceful robber or the superhero to rescue us. Her Marvel name? Ali – to mean “elevated”. Her weapon of choice? Rhymes of supersonic flow, and as her trusty sidekick waves his arms around to the glitchy electro, boom bap and trap underneath, the crowd bounce along with hands in the air. Unscrewing the cap from her water bottle and tossing it aside (“I’ll get it later!”) she asks, “how you all doing tonight?” before suddenly remembering it is only 3pm in the afternoon. “Hey, we’re in a cave!” she exclaims of Green Door’s nocturnal vibes. Laughter ensues and with everyone on side, the MC unleashes her final tactic for preventing Armageddon; meditation. Everyone closes their eyes; the frantic strobe and house lights are plunged into darkness and alongside wobbly atmospherics Ali delivers a poetic vision posing one simple question; to reach your goals do you fight with the snakes or accept them and keep walking? Not all heroes wear capes.

HIGHSCHOOL (Australia) @ Folklore, The Quadrant

It’s only a matter of time before Brandon Flowers discovers Australian band, HighSchool. With a knack for a synth melody like The Killers’ showman himself, danceable guitar riffs à la the now sadly defunct Finnish band French Films, careening Drums-like whimsy, mellow surf numbers with Smiths-like charm, and New Order danceability, their indie hearts firmly rest on their narrow vest top sleeves. But crammed into the corner of this upstairs pub, this is a band whose highly hung guitar melodies proudly glimmer with romantic sheen. There’s little talk, preferring to let the music do the self-loathing (or perhaps exhaustion is setting in from previous official shows of the day) but as the crowd bobs along and vocalist and songwriter Rory Trobbiani does his best running man arms on the spot alongside sister Lilli on keys and bassist Luke, everything is just fine. “This is a new song for Ivan,” he tells of the newest member to join the band. Clearly Ivan’s getting into the swing of it; as Rory repeatedly sings “it was only a dream,” Ivan makes his way to the top of the amp and whatever the fantasy was, feels like it could become reality.

BALMING TIGER (South Korea) @ Folklore, The Quadrant

It’s impossible to know where to look at the chaos unfolding in this unsuspecting pub corner on North Street. Wearing turd brown tracksuits which offset spectacularly elevated levels of spirit, one band member of this 6-piece collective clutches a soft toy cat and pounds upon the stage with her fist whilst upside down headbanging. Another has possibly had one too many and with half-closed eyes, steadies himself on the banister beside him. Their leader, with jalapeño buzz cut spits out alternative hip-hop rhymes about social media misuse (‘I’m Sick’) and trusting yourself. With too many members to fit on this small stage, the socially conscious band spill to the floor. Moving to every beat like a synchronised swim group on dry land, the troupe bounce in a moving circle before the song transforms into a ballad. It’s all captured by another member, on his compact handheld video camera. “We are the alternative K-pop band, love is our mission,” their singer exclaims before set highlight ‘Kolo Kolo’; an enthusiastic back and forth of “Hakuna Matata” with the audience.

Honourable mentions: Kills Birds (USA), Unschooling (France), Roller Derby (Germany), Bad Waitress (Canada), The Bobby Tenderloin Universe (USA)

*Support Ukrainian creatives Artery is a free job platform helping displaced Ukrainian music professionals fleeing war, find jobs they love in great teams. Visit the site if you’re an employer looking for talent, or a displaced professional looking for a way to share your talent.