I’ve had a bit of a whirlwind three weeks. On top of finishing and submitting my PhD thesis, I’ve also been lucky enough to experience both the Roaring City, and Swingamajig festivals: two of the biggest dates in the Electro Swing calendar worldwide for 2019. The former being held on the weekend of the 13-14th of April in Chicago, and the latter in Birmingham on the 5th of May – these two events have provided a perfect example of the ways in which electro swing is presented and enjoyed in both the US and the UK. What follows is somewhat of a review, somewhat of a comparison between the two events, and somewhat of an analysis into the various ways a genre can manifest itself across these two countries.
Written by Chris Swinglis Date: 2019-05-07
So this was quite a big deal. Not only is Roaring City the US’s biggest electro swing event of 2019, it’s in fact the very first event of its kind across the whole country. Electro swing has certainly been catching on in States for some time now – I’ve even seen posters for events held in San Francisco dating as far back as 2010 – but it’s yet to have a fully-formed festival such as this. Resultingly, Roaring City – much like the first Swingamajig back in 2013 – will be remembered as a momentous achievement in the story of electro swing’s development.
I first found out about this event in early February from Mr Automatic, who organised the event alongside DJ Vourteque. Knowing how important this festival would be, I figured I’d forever regret it if I didn’t seize the chance to go, and immediately bought my tickets and flights over to Chicago. Being a huge Blues Brothers fan, I also saw this as an opportunity to visit the city so central to one of my favourite films, and thus provided a bit of bonus motivation for the trip. Additionally, Chicago has been such an important city in terms of the development of jazz, and in this sense stands as what’s arguably the perfect location for the festival.
From a personal perspective, I found myself particularly excited by the line-up of Roaring City. As much as I love Swingamajig, almost every act on this year’s bill is one which I’ve seen multiple times before – yet for Roaring City the exact opposite was the case. With the exception of Duke Skellington, who I first saw at last year’s Swingamajig, every single act was new to me: artists included Mr Automatic; Vourteque; Ninjula; Faith in the Glitch; Glitch Gatsby; as well as the three headliners: Sepiatonic; Slynk; and Defunk. The other major difference is that Roaring City spread itself out over two days, whilst Swingamajig has consistently opted to squeeze everything into just the one.
Over the course of its two days, Roaring City presented some fantastic acts. Stand-out performances came from Ninjula; Slynk; the Tripp Brothers; and My Pet Monster – the latter two I was unfamiliar with prior to their shows. My favourite moment was most likely the Rouge! party on the second day featuring both Mr Automatic and Vourteque; and I’ve got to give special mention to Duke Skellington as well for consistently killing it. The festival featured a bit of bad luck on the Sunday when a literal snow blizzard hit Chicago (bear in mind this is mid-April!!); whilst the entire venue was indoors, I suspect much of the audience elected to stay at home all day, and subsequently the turnout wasn’t so great for day two. Luckily however, this didn’t seem to affect the quality of any of the acts, and if anything, I probably enjoyed the second day more.
Roaring City was a fantastic experience – well-worth the horrific jetlag obtained as a result of a three-day holiday to a destination six time-zones away – and I can totally see it developing into an annual event. I’d love to see the US hosting its own yearly equivalent of Swingamajig, and whilst I doubt I’d be able to come every year, I would certainly return in the future. I’ve got to give a massive cheers to both Mr Automatic and Vourteque for putting on such a brilliant event, and I’m going to be keeping my eye out to see what’s next to come for American electro swing. From what I witnessed on this trip, there’s a huge potential.
There’s no doubt that I’m always going to hold a massive love for Swingamajig. I’ve been to every event since it first started in 2013, including the one-off New Year’s party at the start of 2015, and the replacement event held after last year’s event was cancelled due to ongoing problems with the venue. Those problems have persisted to this year, and thus Swingamajig underwent a huge transformation for this event: being held in the grounds of Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens, enabling the festival to be family-friendly for the first time; and also being split into a main festival and an afterparty in a separate venue. It was immediately obvious that the festival had a completely different vibe this year to all previous events. Being used to walking through the industrial archways of Digbeth – entering through a greenhouse filled with exotic flora was certainly a unique experience. There was even a rogue peacock wandering around the festival grounds. The site was beautiful, and an incredible setting to experience live music in; I only wish we’d had had slightly warmer weather. And although it was a bit of a hassle getting from the first venue to the afterparty (bloody taxis can be useless), Amusement 13 provided a fine location for the wilder side of the party, much more in line with how previous Swingamajigs have felt. If this arrangement is used again for next year, I will be completely satisfied.
The first highlight of the festival was the 30-second dance showcase, which Becca and I had entered ourselves. We performed a routine to Powello Bros’ ‘All Night Boogaloo’, which – due to an unusually low ceiling – had Becca literally crashing through the roof during one of our more ambitious aerials. Luckily for us we managed to recover well enough for it to not affect the routine too much, and we really enjoyed watching the other participants. Everyone involved was fantastic and the winner definitely deserved it. I’ve found Swingamajig to be increasingly welcoming to lindy hoppers year after year, which – as a lindy hopper myself – I love to see.
My favourite acts during the day were Cut Capers; King Brasstards; and Catjam; as well as the Electric Swing Circus themselves, who are basically incapable of putting on a bad show at this point. I was glad to see the Swinghoppers on this year’s line-up, but unfortunately some real sound problems tainted what could have otherwise been a great performance. The afterparty provided some amazing electro swing acts; one look at the main room line-up reveals just how high the calibre of acts that Swingamajig attracts tends to be: Emma Clair; Tuxedo Junction; Mista Trick with Fizzy Gillespie; Dutty Moonshine; C@ in the H@; and A. Skillz. The highlight of the night was undoubtedly Tuxedo Junction, whose sets are just great fun from start to finish.
Although held on a slightly smaller scale than previous events have been, I think this year’s Swingamajig has been one of my all-time favourites. I can’t praise the organisers highly enough for the hard work that they put in, and I’m well aware of the various problems in the lead up to this year’s event. Huge thanks to Tom and the guys from the Electric Swing Circus; C@ in the H@; and the whole team for consistently putting on what is plainly the best electro swing festival in the world. The perfect way to celebrate my PhD thesis hand in!
The first thing to note is of course the scale. Swingamajig is incredibly well-established by this point: everyone even remotely involved in this scene will be well aware of the importance of such an event. Spread across two venues, and featuring four stages at the main festival and three at the afterparty, Swingamajig is far bigger than Roaring City, which – although longer – only featured one stage across the entirety of its weekend. Swingamajig also featured various food stalls, a vintage market, and numerous walkabout performances, whilst Roaring City only had a few local traders on either side of the room.
This is not to say anything negative of Roaring City however, in fact one could argue quite the opposite. The absolute highlight of Roaring City, even above all the amazing performances, was the interaction with all the acts there, meeting and making new friends, and feeling like a part of an incredible collective of people. Whilst this may say something for American’s openness and friendliness, I feel that the inclusion one felt at Roaring City would not have been possible at a festival the size of Swingamajig, no matter the location. Of course, this isn’t to say that Swingamajig isn’t also a welcoming environment – it undoubtedly is – and I really get on with everyone involved. It’s just a different environment, and this perfectly demonstrates how both small and large-scale events can be equally fantastic when run well.
I was also fascinated by the way in which Roaring City put the cabaret acts on a par with the music acts. The line-up was presented as a constant rotation between these various types of performance, in which their respective shows weren’t really treated as distinct at all. Swingamajig indeed featured many cabaret acts, but there were presented on their own cabaret stage (the one which Becca destroyed the ceiling of earlier in the day). I’m not sure if I have any particular preference as to which way I prefer it, but it was certainly interesting to see this distinction.
Both these festivals left me utterly exhausted and utterly delighted, and I feel very fortunate to be involved in such a brilliant scene. I will continue attending Swingamajig every year, and I’d love to make it back to Roaring City if I ever can. I genuinely can’t imagine any way in which someone could attend either of these two events and not have the greatest time. I hope that they both keep growing and improving – and for as long as I’m able, I hope to continue being a part of them.