Abney Park

I’ve been interested in Steampunk as a genre for years, but I admit that I had no idea that there was any such thing as Steampunk inspired music prior to last year. I had not heard about Abney Park at all until I saw they were announced as guests at October’s Steam Powered convention in October. During that weekend they played at the San Jose Civic Auditorium for the convention and rocked the house, to the delight of the hardcore Steamer audience which already seemed to know all their songs.

I had a great time watching them then and was excited to hear they would be playing at Slim’s, down in SOMA. This is the same place where I saw the Phenomenauts play nearly two years ago (as reported in issue 42 of SF/SF). While the venue is nice enough, I was afraid it might be too big for a Wednesday night show of what is after all a relatively unknown band, but once again I seem to have seriously underestimated the current popularity of the genre. When I arrived at around 8:30 the place was already half-filled with folks in full costume; corsets, goggles, watch fobs and waistcoats filled the room as far as the eye could see. I grabbed a margarita and headed to the coat check, running into Louise Du Cray and Arielle Kesweder of SF Browncoat fame along the way, and just a few minutes later Kim as well.

We chatted for a bit until the first band, HUMANWINE (which insisted that its name be spelled all caps) came on. The lead singer is Holly Brewer, who has a very lovely voice. She was on her own at first and sang something in what sounded like Italian. Apparently the band likes to shuffle its lineup by getting different local musicians to join them at different gigs, and changing which and how many band members might play any particular show. So over the next couple of minutes she was joined by a handful of other musicians, including Erika Mukley from Unwoman, who did a great job on some fun Gyspy style tunes. The themes and lyrics for most the rest of the songs where quite political, reminding me of Irish folk punk. It struck me as funny that the dynamic was so similar to the opening band for the Phenomenauts, which had also been stylistically different from the main event, and with overtly leftist lyrics.

From reading the blogs afterwards it seems the infusion of politics did annoy a portion of the audience at the Phenomenauts show, and to some extent at this one. I do find it a little depressing how intensely hardcore fans of a particular band will often hate the opening act if it is at all different from whoever they are there to see. Still, most of the crowd was clearly enjoying themselves and sales of their t-shirts, which feature a cog logo, seemed to go well. I myself picked up a CD for the heck of it.

Eventually they wrapped up and Abney Park came on stage to an enthusiastic reception from the crowd. Their stage presence and charisma are considerable, so seeing them live is definitely well worth the price of admission. The lead singer, Captain Robert, was first on stage followed by Daniel, Kristina, Finn and eventually Nathan, who may or may not have been a ways into his cups according to all the teasing he suffered throughout the set. The band seems to have a tendency to play fast and loose and is also very interactive, all of which lends a fun, collegial atmosphere to the proceedings. Even the frequent minor screw ups and miscommunications are very much in keeping with their “Motley Airship Pirate Crew” personas.

They took a lot of requests from the audience, asking permission (or encouragement) to play new songs and towards the end exhorting the crowd to let him know which songs they had missed that they should have played. I particularly enjoyed hearing some of the songs I’m now familiar with like “Sleep Isabella” and “Dear Ophelia.” During the show there were two folks with rayguns moving through the crowd blowing bubbles, much to everyone’s delight. Particularly entranced was the daughter of one of the band members who was taking advantage of the all-ages show to spend the evening bouncing around, obviously enjoying being up past her bedtime.

After teasing us that they were done for the night, the band took a short booze break, although honestly it’s hard to say if they really needed it. Back on stage they took a lot of requests from the audience, including “Herr Drosselmeyer’s Doll” which is always a crowdpleaser, not least because of Finn’s lovely dancing as the titular automaton, complete with mid-song wind-up. And towards the end as things got rowdier the band played some pirate shanties, “Post-Apocalypse Punk,” a surprisingly good cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and a new song with a Roaring Twenties kind of vibe which should be on their next album. They wrapped everything up with the audience-participation favorite “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest” and bade us good night for real.

Given the kind of music the band generally plays I was surprised to see how few people were dancing, although the numbers did increase as the evening wore on and the booze kicked in. I did my best to encourage my friends — and yes, okay, a few innocent bystanders — to dance. I was glad that as the latter songs got more rollicking the Captain also encouraged people to dance, or at least to hop up and down, and people really got into Editit. Going to see a band live in order to stand on the dance floor and take pictures of them seems a little strange to me. Although given the temperature and the amount of layers most people were sporting, maybe it’s not surprising most folks were taking it easy. I was covered in sweat by the end of the evening and wasn’t even wearing that many layers. One thing this taught me is that I need to put together some clubbing Steampunk outfits with fewer layers and props.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #83, April 1, 2009