The Joy The Great Escape festival

The Great Escape 2023: All the Montreal acts & international bands we saw in Brighton, U.K.

A report from the adorable seaside town of Brighton, England, site of the annual festival of emerging artists and gathering place for the United Nations of the music industry.

Brighton, you have destroyed my wallet but stolen my heart.

Held in the adorable seaside city of Brighton, the Great Escape festival has been a vital showcase event for emerging artists and bands the world over since its inception in 2006. The fest also offers various keynote conferences and attracts delegates from across the globe — a United Nations of music industry people, if you will.

Travelling to the U.K. with my close friend Carola (also a delegate this year) and playing tourist in Liverpool and Manchester beforehand, I went to Brighton not really knowing what to expect from either the city or the festival itself. What I saw well and truly exceeded my expectations, and you can bet I’ll be on my way back to dear old Blighty sooner rather than later.

Though half an hour per set isn’t really enough of a sample size to truly understand someone’s artistry, here’s a recap nonetheless of everything I caught — both Montreal artists and international ones — at my very first Great Escape.

The Joy

I only got into the Old Market for their final son, but MAN this five-piece vocal group from Durban, South Africa can sing and harmonize like no one’s business — especially the fairly young-sounding lead vocalist. Singing in their native tongue of Zulu, the Joy had the audience in the palm of their hands just by using the human voice as their only instrument. The crowd’s reception as the members locked hands and took a bow was raucous, and it made me wish I’d gotten there earlier. My Great Escape experience was well and truly getting underway!

Moonchild Sanelly

As far as flat-out fun sets go, this fellow South African set the bar incredibly high for the next two days to come. With her trademark thick blue hair on full display, Moonchild Sanelly gave me immediate Sudan Archives vibes, but with a feistier and more playful personality (even when singing about abjectly unhappy topics), a distinctly African twist to her sound, and a bit more pizzazz and sex appeal. With her DJ dancing and voguing enthusiastically behind her, she was clearly feeling herself on Thursday night, and so was the crowd. 

And why wouldn’t they? Her charismatic stage banter, hypnotic dance moves, occasional lyrics in her native language of Xhosa and high-energy tunes are nothing short of captivating. Moonchild’s stage presence also screams elegance, confidence, joy and free-spiritedness, something she’d take to another level when she went right into the middle of the floor and got fans (and members of the Joy) to dance — and in one case, twerk — with her. As if this experience wasn’t already a huge shot of adrenaline in my veins, I saw a fox scurrying across the street near the venue after the show (the security guard joked they “couldn’t get in without a wristband”). Pure magic.


Having just gotten in as fellow Montrealer Vanille was finishing her set at the M for Montreal showcase (and therefore I didn’t glean enough from her performance to write a whole review for her), I got in just in time to see what kind of impression Fernie could leave on those watching in the upstairs bar at the incredibly cute Prince Albert pub. The Brazilian-Canadian chanteur’s set consisted of tunes new (“Nothing Left”) and old (“New Beginnings”) while delivering it in his typically evocative and powerful live voice — one that feels even stronger than it was when I saw him at POP two years ago.

Backed by no one other than a single guitarist/bassist/violinist(!) in front of a computer, Fernie’s infectious charisma that Montrealers already know him for was right there to be heard in a crowd where you could overhear multiple English accents. His robust, decadent voice fits like a glove with the warm, sensual instrumentation behind him, and I’m glad Brighton got to have a taste of that.

Bibi Club

Anyone who has read my work knows how much I’ve pumped this band’s tires, so much so that I did a cover story about them earlier this year. The duo/real-life couple of Nicolas Basque and Adèle Trottier-Rivard excel in intimate live atmospheres, and this room feels even more snug and cozy than when I saw them at le Ministère last fall. The sprightly guitar strumming and wind chimes add emphasis to the quiet joyfulness of their music, and that especially comes through in a live setting. The crowd seemed to dig it, too, with the lady directly in front of me swaying back and forth during “Femme-Lady.” 

The best way I can describe both their music and their performance style is energetic but tranquil, and chaotic but controlled — with the more rowdy side coming through in Nicolas going into the crowd to play and Adèle going absolutely buckwild on her crash cymbal. Bibi Club have always had great synergy as a live act, and their performance in Brighton on Friday afternoon was no different.

Stacey Ryan

This is the Montreal artist on the M showcase bill that I knew the least about, and probably felt the most out of place among the artists performing before her. The Vaudreuil-Dorion native is also the most outwardly pop and R&B-leaning artist playing that afternoon, and her voice was immediately reminiscent of Charlotte Cardin, with the vocal gymnastics cranked way up. She doesn’t always nail her ambitious runs, but her vocal range is clearly expansive and her songwriting approach — particularly on the topic of lost love — is smart, even if her tunes aren’t reinventing the wheel. 

Sometimes she can be guilty of being a little overzealous with the melisma, such as during her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” which she nonetheless puts a unique and personal twist on. The crowd for her was a packed one (I even met a Brit who was there just for her), and she encouraged audience participation at various points in her set. Stacey Ryan’s style may not be my thing, but she does it pretty well.


Moving further up north to the Komedia Studio, I got a glimpse of the Belgian-Korean, London-based songstress who immediately channeled the unflinchingly seductive R&B vibes of artists Sabrina Claudio, FKA twigs and Rosalia. MEYY wasted little time making an impression, as she performed while sitting across a white cube-shaped platform while also dancing here and there (though she’d also play an acoustic ballad at one point). Rocking woolly knee socks and platform shoes, her soft, cashmere-like voice fits nicely atop bass-heavy, ethereal beats, and she did a good job of transfixing a relatively small audience. Her style also suited a smallish room like that one, and she definitely left an impression on those bearing witness.


This English R&B chanteuse, who gave a spirited early evening set on night two of the festival, performing down at the Seafront in the downstairs section of Patterns. She even sang over a pre-recorded track of live drums and guitars added onto her songs, though it would’ve been better if the stage wasn’t so tiny so that she could have an actual live band backing her. Her voice is smooth and powerful, and she can take it on some pretty hefty runs. Alternating between American-sounding R&B and Afrobeats for instrumentals, Bellah doesn’t move around a whole lot onstage, but her voice is clearly the straw that stirs the drink here. Her stage banter is charming and funny (“This is my last song,” *crowd boos* “That was the right reaction!”), and it added even greater colour and life to a set that was already one of the most entertaining ones I’ve seen thus far.

The Pretenders

I didn’t think I’d come to Brighton to witness a legendary band take the stage, but here I am! Chrissie Hynde still looks effortlessly cool at 71 years young, and she made sure everyone at a packed Old Market — an overwhelmingly older-swinging crowd, mostly 50– and 60–somethings — saw that, despite their frustratingly short 45-minute set time. There were occasional hiccups (mainly involving her inability to hear her own band at times), Hynde sounded great throughout, and looked as confident and self-assured as she ever has. She and her much younger-looking bandmates offered mostly newer material (including cuts from their forthcoming 12th album Relentless), as the only hit that I — and probably most others in the room — recognized was “Back on the Chain Gang.” 

Though I didn’t love Hynde acknowledging a crowd member who she was rude to earlier in the day when they asked for her photo on the street (“Hey Miriam, was I a cunt to you on the street today when I wanted your picture? But see, I remembered you!”), that was a relatively small blip. Seeing a band as legendary as the Pretenders in a relatively small room is a fucking experience and a half, even despite a lack of hits. Hynde’s aura is a hard one to replicate by contemporary artists, and it’s energizing to see that in the flesh.


How many other venue-to-venue festivals allow you to go watch a show right on the beach? The Great Escape beach stage area reminded me a lot of Montreal’s Village au Pied-du-Courant, except with 100% more pebbles and rocks. The first of two acts I saw down there was Zakhar, whose name my iPhone immediately autocorrects to “Calgary.” The North London R&B sing-rapper gave North Americans like me a little taste of how that genre is done in Britain, though his personal style definitely comes across like a Drake, WizKid and Post Malone hybrid (one of his songs even seemingly apes the melody from the latter’s “Psycho”). 

He has a nice voice, but he looks a bit timid onstage at times, and his songs talk about little else other than relationships. Afrobeat — a genre that seems to loom large over British music nowadays — is also prominent in his music, though his style is mostly contemporary R&B. Though I don’t listen to that style too often, he’s got some catchy and summery tunes in his arsenal, and the people watching under that tent — some of whom sang along to every word — seemed to dig it.


And now, for something completely different: I caught Brighton’s own Plantoid at the opposite stage on the beach, and their sound is great if you enjoy the freaky, experimental jazz fusion sounds of bands like King Crimson or black midi. That kind of freewheeling psychedelic style full of bizarre time signatures and ambitious drum fills may not be for you, but I enjoyed the 15–20 minutes of their set that I saw. Led by a female singer with a heavy use of her upper register (namely her falsetto), their music is characterized by stop-and-start drum beats (almost like the drummer was playing in 5/4 time), ostensible influences from progressive rock and math rock, and even a little bit of funk thrown in here and there. Though I didn’t catch too much of the set, it was a fun change of pace.

Debby Friday

This former Montrealer has been gaining a fair bit of hype back home, so I went back to the downstairs part of Patterns to see what that buzz was all about. Debby Friday is nothing if not a unique artist — her beats are industrial, dark and skittering, and she’s got the vocals and rhymes to match. Her voice echoes as she occasionally lets out a pained wail, all while maintaining a clear aura of mystique to her persona. Those gritty production flourishes seem like more of a focus for her than her actual rhymes — which is a shame, as she can clearly spit. Having said that, I’m not completely transfixed or grabbed by her style or her tunes yet, even though she pulls the whole ominous aesthetic off well.


Just up the street at Latest Music Bar was this Spanish songstress, and her set was nothing if not enthralling. Despite there only being about 20 to 30 people in the small downstairs room, her fast and syncopated rap flow complemented the energetic rhythms and acoustic flamenco guitars — with the occasional synths and percussion — behind her quite well. She’s also a pretty solid flamenco dancer, to boot. Though I only got in for her last couple of songs, Orovega’s set was a fun one, and she definitely left a mark on me in a room where the cozy and intimate environment matched her sound beautifully.

Luke RV

This Welsh rapper came onstage sporting a bucket hat/baseball cap hybrid, a sweater, a fanny pack, and jeans that maybe looked a smidge too big for him. Fashion choices aside, Luke RV delivered what was easily one of the most enjoyable sets I saw all festival. His flow and rhymes are skilled, thoughtful and extremely sharp, almost like a white Stormzy, if you will. He’s also an incredibly charming dude who wasted no time shouting out his compatriots in the crowd (“I love being in Brighton with my Welsh gang!”), and it’s perhaps a sign that people on our side of the pond should start paying attention to Welsh emcees. Between spitting fast bars and showing off effortless charisma, he showcased clear potential, and I look forward to seeing what comes next for him.

Etta Bond

Last but not least, this English R&B songstress from the university town of Cambridge played in a small but tightly packed room at Zahara just around the corner from Latest — and boy did she ever kill it. Etta Bond’s style is hazy and vibe-driven, with a pleasant, pillowy voice working gorgeously over songs that feel like the kind of music you listen to while making love to your sweetie after smoking a bunch of pot and/or cigarettes (“I ain’t had sex for a minute, feels like sex when I hit it,” she sings about weed at one point). Hooks aren’t the focus of her sound so much as her voice and the resulting vibes are, but she knows how to wield that extremely well — and the crowd was feeling it big time. Her funny stage banter was a nice contrast to the darkly lit room she played in, and she had the crowd singing along gleefully as she closed with her 2018 single “Surface.” All in all, she’s the reason my debut Great Escape experience ended on a high.

The Great Escape: All the Montreal acts & international bands we saw in Brighton, U.K.

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