Words & pics by Ed King @EdKing2210
I’m staring at pinstripes; my recently tailored Jasper Conran hangs from my bedroom window curtain rail. I look good in a suit. I look good in this suit. I look good as the jacket’s burgundy lining casually exposes itself. I’d look even better in a hat, and with a silver-topped cane.
Swingamjig, ‘the UK’s first one day urban festival dedicated to Electro Swing, Gypsy Folk and vintage mayhem’, is now in its third year – having exploded from a 2011 good intention into an annual assurance from thousands of well dressed revelers. And it’s a boat I failed to catch, until now; exuberance and dress codes making it feel both fantastic and impregnable. At least, that’s what it looks like from the shoreline.
Organised by some of the more approachable people from the land of press accreditation, Swingamajig is the brainchild/success of Electric Swing Circus and Ragtime Records – both Birmingham based purveyors of the Electric Swing scene. It’s a niche, and yet hugely endorsed; an event that carries some significant love behind its promotional rhetoric. The promoter (buried) within me is surprised and impressed by such meteoric success. I have, to a point, struggled to ‘get it’. But having never been…
I shake out my jeans and press my cream cotton pullover; I’m working, I’ll be on my feet all night, the skies look like rain. I wrap up my lack of self confidence in more sensible attire and head out, having already missed the 2pm opening. I blame the rain, again.
Walking through a Bank Holiday Sunday in Digbeth, I can already see the culmination of carnage; it’s 3:30pm and the streets are glistening with empty bottles of Crabbies and Echo Falls. I use to know The Custard Factory well but it’s been a while since I saw a dance floor in action there, and as I arrive I’m not 100% sure where I‘m going – heras fencing and a curiously well informed badger steer me inside.
And inside is bustling. It seems the monsoon bruises above haven’t deterred many. Or even any. Alfie Birds is spilling out around the ‘lake’, whilst a queue feeds one in/one out to see the bands on The Oobleck stage. People sit on the dry decking, sipping cider from the mandatory plastic pint glasses (…oxymoron?) and chat in tipsy afternoon delight. I want to laugh. I probably do. Everyone is dressed up.
I make my way over to The Mockingbird Bar, hoping to get enough alcohol and time to process the dapper and flappers. Already out of draught at a shameful 4pm, I am decanted a Magners and take a seat overlooking the water.
The table next to me have come up from Bristol, decked out in 3xsmart white shirts & braces, and tell me the event “is much bigger than last year,’ before admitting ‘we’re a little lost; we can, erm, remember where everything is..?”
I take this opportunity to be part of something and try to give them a confident, adequate description of The Custard Factory layout. Albeit about five years backdated. In the land of the blind, who’s going to know you can’t see?
Deciding to find out just how right I was, and with the Bristolians safely (hopefully) on their way, I slurp down my cider and snake out of The Custard Factory main entrance and into the Scott House Courtyard – a small parade of sequins and suits decorate the smaller water feature outside. Further Heras fencing, those all night rave breadcrumbs, kettle me into the food court, where a horseshoe of eateries lie patiently in wait. I spy the burger fan, make a mental note, and move on.
To my right, a healthy crowd are bouncing through the drizzle to Jamtidy – a six piece Birmingham Reggae/Gyspy/Hip Hop ensemble, who are, and I used the term with full irony and conviction, rocking the crowd. I take some pics by the front of the stage, but it’s too good not to fish out the lens cap and start dancing instead. Denim be damned.
After the inevitable end, I move away from the shelter of the old railway arches and into the shelter of the main arena – a large old sheet metal and steel warehouse, with a bar along one length and a stage against the other.
I’m not sure who’s on stage and I’m not really sold, so I duck out post haste to see The Rin Tins who were setting up after Jamtidy on the Arches Stage. Part of me is feeling increasingly more at home; I wonder if the lost Bristolians need any more confident advice. Perhaps I need another cider.
After a couple of circuits, a toilet break and a slurred (him not me, I think) conversation about the cost of printing on canvas, I am back at the food court – my belly and urge for familiarity screaming BURGER WITH THE WORKS.
As I eat part of my feast, and spread the rest around my mouth like an apoplectic five year old, I chat to three Brummies who have been swinging their jigs since 2011. “It’s just mayhem,” says the taller and older man – with rouge or lipstick smudged curiously across his cheek, “you can proper dress up, you know – let go, and just…”
He tails off as some music strikes up behind us, and I hide my civvies behind their invitation to head back to the Arches Stage – where my camera seems more popular than the music for one joint bachelor/bachelorette party from Wolverhampton.
Stage hoping until the sun and nearly all drinks run out – the bars becoming pathetically dry at around 7pm – it’s time for Electric Swing Circus, but not before catching the end half of the awesome fun that is Jenova Collective. Shimmy, shimmy, shake, shake.
I’ve never seen ESC perform before, and as I nestle towards the front of an increasingly full Warehouse I become suddenly self conscious again. But not in a bad way. True, I am aware of something I am not fully part of – a late arrival at a special occasion – but I’m not threatened. It could, very possibly, be the cider. Or the woman who randomly, and proficiently, starts massaging my head whilst I’m lining up my camera (thanks for that).
Either way, the atmosphere at Swingamajig is one of open exuberance and decadence, with every single person (not working behind a bar) that I’ve spoken to being both well dressed and mannered. There is no reason to feel out of place. Even if you are. I just hope that when the people who started this all come on stage I…
Electric Swing Circus are infectious. I don’t know what’s Electro, what’s Swing, or who’s supposed to be the Circus, but as Laura Louise demands the crowd’s attention – marching towards us, peering mercilessly and mischievously into the eyes of the front row, I no longer care. I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy this so much.
Bold on both cider and break beat – the final curtain on ESC being a strangely Jungle affair – I head over to The Oobleck as the unmistakable shillouttes of some Sexy Weirdos pick their way into place. Taking a short break to watch two leather clad women angle grind sparks from their holiest of holies, I smoke a quick cigarette and bob my way through the exiting crowd.
Johnny Kowalski, the eponymous front man, unsheathes his torso in an almost immediate and Supermanesque display, before screaming out to the masses who dutifully return and fill out the room. Birmingham Review has covered Johnny Kowalski & the Sexy Weirdos’ a couple of times, including reviews of their two albums, but (again) I have never seen them live.
I have toe-dipped Gypsy/Klezmer Folk – or whatever you want to call it – before and have never been able to get past the, to me, inescapable chair wielding pretensions. If there isn’t an old relative trying to set me up it never quite felt right. But today is about confidence and challenges, about allowing myself to have fun, and as more bare-chested anarchy unfolds quite masterfully on stage, I try to wade in a little deeper.
Oddly Punk for an Electro Swing festival, the musical aggression (for it is both of those words) coming off stage is hard to resist – I’ve heard this when reviewing Kill the Beast, but I’ve never seen it in its natural habitat. I start to understand what the fuss is about. And just like with Electric Swing Circus, I’m soon too distracted to care.
Eventually, and after taking a five minute recess to see Chinese Man – who were (through my small window, at least) in essence Hip Hop – it’s time to click my Cuban heals and go home. Both the batteries in me and my camera are flashing red. I stand outside The Custard Factory fishing for taxis, warm and snug in my sensible cream pullover – no top button draught to keep me shivering while I wait.
But tonight has been more than aesthetic; Swingamajig has managed something that few events can pull off, a large devoted crowd who will all travel and dress up. And I mean all of them. Like the grandeur of gay clubs, the friendlier nights along the Que Club corridors, or the en masses masquerades at Bestival and Shambala, there is a care and attention to embracing this event that’s simply quite endearing.
Now I can see it, I get it, and the dressing up box is less daunting. It’s an odd feeling to be this old and this young, and I’m already running over my outfit for next time.
I might buy some braces. I should definitely find a hat. And as Atlas taxis, gawd bless ‘em, finally pull into port – I start thinking about Swingamajig 2016, watching land disappear, and where one could acquire a silver topped cane.
For more on Swingamajig, visit http://swingamajig.co.uk/
For more from Electric Swing Circus, visit http://electricswingcircus.com/
For more from Ragtime Records, visit http://ragtime-records.com/
For more from Johnny Kowalski & the Sexy Weirdos, visit https://www.facebook.com/sexyweirdos
For more from Alfie Birds, visit http://alfiebirds.co.uk/
For more from The Mockingbird Theatre & Bar, visit http://mockingbirdtheatre.com/
For more from The Oobleck, visit http://theoobleck.co.uk/