Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Swingamajig review

Its now nearly four weeks since Swingamajig took over the Custard Factory in Birmingham, and its taken me nearly that long to marshal my thoughts on the event. Last year’s festival was a pretty amazing event, despite the organisers having to deal with a last minute venue change, so my expectations were pretty high. 2015, with a bigger venue and a bigger line-up, promised to be even better. I wasn’t disappointed.

Last year my girlfriend (who exists) travelled up to Birmingham with me, but didn’t feel up to staying all night, so caught the last train back to London that evening. This year I was accompanied by my Kiwi housmate Mark, while his missus and mine went off for a weekend of mud baths and massages in the Cotswolds, so I was assured of company all the way thought the night. Our plan was to party right up til the end, and then catch the first train out of Birmingham and be back in our comfy beds by 10am on Monday.

We arrived in Birmingham at about 2pm, exactly the stated start time of the festival. Having navigated our way from the station to the Custard Factory we presented ourselves at the main gate and were ushered in, not quite knowing what to expect from the new venue. We cautiously worked our way past a number of double doors and collected our reusable cups* from a pair of nice young ladies stationed at a trestle table.

Unsure of where to go, we were directed down a narrow corridor. At the end, we pushed open a door and were suddently outside again, in a sunlit courtyard dominated by a large… well, swimming pool isn’t quite the right word, but nor is pond, since it was lined with tiles. Anyway. A sunlit courtyard dominated by a body of water of indeterminate purpose was where we were, .

It is always interesting to arrive at big events like this a bit before everything kicks off in earnest, and this was no exception. Swingamajig is run by Ragtime Records and the Electric Swing Circus, and although things weren’t quite ready when we got there, everything seemed very calm. Having had our plastic cups filled with beer we returned to the watery courtyard and took a seat in the sunshine and spent a pleasant few minutes watching a man in chest-waders do something involving floating lights and gaffer tape. He looked very cold. All the while we were entertained by a brass band playing on a stage precariously placed stage over the water. While we enjoyed these entertainments I spotted Rich Shawcross (aka c@ in the h@), one of the festival’s organisers ambling around and collared him. I commented that for someone supposed to be running a festival he was remarkably relaxed. “Yeah,” he drawled. “Given last year’s last minute change of venue, this is all going pretty smoothly. Except that I need to find a DJ controller from somewhere before things kick off in the Ragtime Records Stage.” And off he went, presumably  to find the aforementioned kit.

We continued watching the band over the water  for a while but no one fell in, so we headed into the Theatre to catch some cabaret. The stage was hosted by Legs Akimbo’s The Church, who you may have come across performing weddings at festivals. Their Degenerate Southern Baptist shtick was undoubtedly the highlight of what we saw, though we very much enjoyed the two ladies in striped 1920s beachwear, whose ribbon and hoop routines were most amusing.

As entertaining as the Theatre was, we were there to see some music. We had intended to see the Temple Funk Collective, but somehow managed to miss their performance in The Cave of Curiosities, instead getting a good earful of Balkan-tinged hip-hoppers Gypsy Unit’s set. I’d heard their music before, but hadn’t seen them perform live. They really entertained a smallish but happy crowd, and a special mention has to go out to the singer Kerry, who battled past a sore throat without missing a note.

Before leaving for Birmingham I had done what any hardened festival-goer does and drawn up a plan for who I would see when. First on that list were Elle and the Pocketbelles ft. Mista Trick, who were third up on the main Swingamajig Stage.  Compared to the 2014 main stage, this was a vast (and I use the term advisedly) difference. It was a big old warehouse, not dissimilar to one of the barns on my old man’s farm, but with fewer rat droppings and a thumping great stage.

Because the stage was, as it were, in landscape format rather than portrait, there was not only much more room, but one could get far closer to the stage, which was a Good Thing. We bumped into Mista Trick dashing around the back of the room as the act before (The Anomalies) were finishing off, and he seemed properly stoked. The girls began with some of their trademark swing numbers, including a Disney medley and a totally shameless 90s medly before bringing Mista Trick to the stage and ‘amping things up a bit’. The crowd loved it, and the energy in the room was palpable.

Once the girls finished we headed over to the Ragtime Records Warehouse to catch a bit of Liverpool’s avian swingers The Chicken Brothers, who were busily scratching away when we went in. As I was leaning on a pillar to catch my breath a bit I was approached by a lady who I recognised instantly as DJ Tallulah Goodtimes, whose set I had to apologise for missing. She very graciously forgave me and said that now that her set was done and dusted she would be hitting the rum hard. Mark and I would then spend quite a lot of time with her over the rest of the night, bumping into her all over the place. After a few moments chatting she reminded us that Jenova Collective were about to play on the Swingamajig stage, so off we trooped to see them.

The moment we entered the room we bumped into Elle and the Pocketbelles, who greeted me with big hugs, which was a Good Thing. Mark also had his picture taken with them, even enlisting the help kind lady named Lynzi Rawbone when our attempts to take the pic with a phone failed. As you will see from his face, this was also a Good Thing. Lynzi is the lady behind the camera for all the pics in this post that don't have the Swingamajig watermark, and aren't the blurry mess below this sentence. Massive thanks to her for letting me use her work.

Jenova Collective were on top form, with their blend of swing, drum 'n' bass and dubstep getting the crowd properly hyped and bouncing around like peas on a drum by the time they had finished their set. I had never paid close attention to their performances before, having been focussed on dancing, but this time around I was really impressed with how tight their show is, and Lily has a fantastic voice, ably backed up by some excellent musicianship from the band. 

By this time, I was really getting into things, which was convenient as the undoubted highlight of the whole event was just around the corner - The Dutty Moonshine Big Band. If you read my preview of  you'll recall that I singled them out as the one absolutely unmissable act. Although the Dutty Moonshine boys had given the Big Band a run out a few months back, this was really the first proper festival performance that they would give, and I was very excited to see what the combination of the DM sound and a big brass band would deliver. I wasn't disappointed.

Joining Mike and Danny on stage were the drummer and 8-piece brass section from the Temple Funk Collective, plus vocalists Hypeman Sage and Maria Laveau and if you didn't think the Dutties could produce a more energy-filled show then you couldn't be more wrong. Mike is a pretty engaging frontman all by himself, but when they launched into fully orchestrated versions of tracks like 'Takin' it Back', with Sage and Maria delivering powerful rhymes, the whole thing just blew me away. Sage was particularly impressive, his energy never dropping throughout.

The whole performance was slick, full of heavy, heavy beats and more full of energy than a supernova. Against such a strong backdrop it seems somewhat disingenuous to pick out favourite moments, but there were two songs that elicited such a response from the crowd that they need a mention.

The first was a performance of an unreleased collaboration between Dutty Moonshine and The McMash Clan. As I have never seen a copy (COUGH, COUGH, MIKE), I don't actually know what the song is called, but I always think of it as the 'Yeah, yeah, Muthafucka' song). If you have heard the track McMash made with Marcella Puppini Swing Break, you'll be familiar with their sound, and when that collides with Dutty Moonshine its like a nuclear bomb going off in your ears.

The second was a brand new cover of the jungle classic Super Sharp Shooter, with which they closed their perfomance. With the help of Howla, who joined them on stage in a suit for which he deserves special commendation, they had reworked the track into 'Super Sharp Swinger', a sing-a-long anthem to end all sing-a-long anthems.

By the time Super Sharp Swinger's final bar faded away my shirt was soaked with sweat and I was happier than I have been for a very long time. It was one of the most enjoyable live sets I have witnessed, and although I was knackered I wanted it to go on and on.

We had been joined in the crowd by Kieran and Charlie from Jenova Collective, and together we went off to console ourselves in the Ragtime Records Warehouse, where Hong Kong Ping Pong were playing. There was rather more room in there than in the in the main room, so we took the chance to do a bit of people watching (I love watching fucked people dancing and having fun) and a drink, and to have a bit of a rest before heading back to the Swingamajig stage in readiness for Chinese Man's set.

This was another set that I was determined to see, having missed them at festivals and one-off gigs before now. It was, again, no disappointment. The French trip-hop crew delivered a flawless performance, working their way through all those tracks that have earned them cult status in the Vintage Remix world: Skank in the Air,  Worldwide and I've Got That Tune to name a fewMCs Taiwan and Youthstar made sure that we were all raving as hard as humanly possible, and the whole show gave the Dutties a run for their money.

By now my shirt really was too unbearably sweaty to wear, so I shed my jacket, waistcoat, shirt and tie and slipped into something drier, namely a big hoody and a t-shirt that I had brought with me for exactly this eventuality, and, feeling refreshed headed back into the night.

There comes a point in every gig review that I write when I have to confess that I can't really remember what happened next. Time, at this stage, had become somewhat fluid in my perception, and I couldn't swear to the order in which everything after this happened. I do recall arriving back in the Ragtime Records Warehouse just in time to catch Don Jonston and Leo Wood's spine-tingling live cover of 'Feeling Good', which made me feel totally unbelievable.

I also recall a phenomenal set from Smokey Joe and the Kid in the Cave of Curiosities. It was a lovely experience to be in the company of Tallulah Goodtimes and Jenova Collective's Charlie and Kieron for this set, and I especially enjoyed Tallulah's proper geek out over the live drum-pad skills that they were showing off. I really got my feet moving in there, despite the crush (Smokey Joe and the Kid really did deserve a bigger stage), and realised for the first time why they are considered the Vintage Remix DJ's DJs of choice. The care and precision of their work is unparalleled - its like they have discovered some secret formula for making massive tunes - each one was a banger of the first order.

By the end of their set, however, my grasp on reality was wavering, and my memories of the time between their set ending and Mark and I crawling onto the 06:15 train to London are very patchy. I had a nice long chat about who-knows-what with Rich 'C@ in the H@' Shawcross, bumped into Danny Wav of Dutty Moonshine and received a massive hug from Howla.

Despite setting a very high bar in 2014, this year's festival was mind-blowingly wonderful. Roll on 2016, the date of which has just been announced - 1st May - put it in your diary now.

*this is an admirable policy on the part of the organisers, who were keen to reduce the use of disposable plastic cups, but in my case it probably backfired a bit. I got a bit fed up with having to carry the empty receptacle around with me. I experimented with putting it in my pocket, but that was really annoying, so in the end I abandoned it, and stumped up the extra quid for a new cup when I wanted another drink.