The fifth annual Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest, held on Friday and Saturday at a farm in Fitchburg, felt more like a family picnic of talented jazz musicians than a festival. They played at Art in the Barn, with plastic chairs and bales of hay set up for seating. There were no aggressive sponsors, and the bathroom was located through the horse stall, next to a horse named Ringo.
All of the bands playing were heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt, an iconic gypsy jazz musician from Paris who, in 1934 along with violinist Stephane Grapelli formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Though more than seventy years have passed since the first Hot Club formed, a handful of passionate musicians around the world carry on the tradition.
Saturday afternoon started with a set by Madison's own Harmonious Wail, a four piece with guitar, mandolin, stand up bass, and singer Maggie Delaney-Potthoff, who also played percussion, including brushes on an empty cardboard box. Wearing a bright black and crimson Asian-style dress, she said to the audience, "This dress is my tribute to the Olympics." The group performed covers of classics such as "Temptation," as well as a rendition of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Wail's set also featured various guest musicians, including guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli, who joined them for a barn-burning version of "Dark Eyes".
The Hot Club of Detroit played next underneath a tent set up outside, where Julian Labro stole the show with his quick work on the accordion. The Twin Cities Hot Club followed in the barn, while various musicians remained in the open air, noodling on their instruments in an impromptu jam session.
This spirit soon flowed inside the barn, as members of the performing bands, along with a few festival-goers, formed a "gypsy swing jam" in the tent. Armed with six guitars, a mandolin, an oboe, and an instrument that was a cross between an accordion and a harmonica, they sat down in a circle and started riffiing off each other; it was clear they were all happy to jam with like-minded musicians. They ended the session with a version of "Minor Swing," a classic Django Reinhardt tune.
Two more sets followed in the barn as night fell. The first was by Gonzalo Bergara, from Los Angeles by way of Buenos Aires. He, along with his bass player and rhythm guitarist, played a set of slower gypsy jazz songs tinged with a distinct Latin style. The second set featured Alfonso Ponticelli of Chicago, accompanied by Tony Ballog on violin. Ponticelli's breakneck guitar playing impressed the audience, who cheered wildly at his jazz flamenco mix. He has played the festival every year since its inception and the crowd hung on to his effortless display of virtuosity.
.Back outside, a bonfire blazed and the stars shined brightly in the late summer sky as the sounds of guitars and violins drifted across the fields of Fitchburg.