“Steampunk is an adventure from a time that never was, but one we wish had been.”
–“Captain” Robert Brown, Lead Singer of Abney Park
Steampunk has evolved from its initial beginnings as an obscure literary subgenre into a full on cultural phenomenon. Looking like a crazy fusion of Jules Verne’s worst nightmares and something out of a pirate movie and sounding like what would happen if a goth band and a Middle Eastern folk band were to have an unholy union, the musical group Abney Park is leading the steampunk charge in the realms of music and fashion. While there are plenty of disputes as to what the musical version of steampunk should sound like Abney Park is looked upon as something of an archetype even by the most divergent of steampunk fans, their unusual and exotic sound combined with their stereotypical steampunk look makes them a sort of bridge between the warring factions. For any fan of steampunk Abney Park is the band that sets the standard.
I was lucky enough to be spending a few days on the west coast for a meeting while Abney Park was headlining a small show just a few miles from my hotel. I managed to get into the place and crammed myself into the packed room just in time to skip the opening act and to hear the beginning chords of “The Wrong Side,” one of my Favorite Abney Park tunes. The gothic and electric mix pumped out of the amps at deafening levels and got the crowd worked up and jumping. Robert Brown’s vocals sounded almost whispered and harkened back to Abney Park’s days as a dark wave goth band, making it seem as if something sinister lay just below the surface of the music. He stared out at the crowd as he caressed the mic, drawing the audience into his performance. Nathaniel Johnstone, the violinist/guitarist bounced around next to him on one side with Jody Ellen providing backing vocals and an undulating counterbalance to Johnstone’s manic bouncing on his other side. The quiet intensity of the song seemed to engulf the crowd, creating an almost cult like scene of fans completely focused on the band, ignoring everything else around them.
Without so much as a pause the band jumps right into “Sleep Isabella,” The gypsy sounding violin perfectly accompanied by Brown banging rhythmically away on a darbuka. The song is fast paced without actually sounding like it, Daniel C. on the bass and Kristina Erickson on keyboards fly through their bits trying desperately to keep pace with the speeding violin as Johnstone plays his hypnotic tune. Brown’s vocals, as usual, are moderately paced and loudly whispered which contrasts extremely well with the chaos that is thriving all around him and makes the music stand out even more. Ellen’s backing vocals make you visualize something less than wholesome; her ability to seduce the audience with just a few soft lyrics is undeniable.
Just as the echoes of “Sleep Isabella” have managed to fade away, the band pauses long enough to do the usual “introduction/how’s everybody tonight?” thing, which sadly seems to be a mandatory sort of event at shows. After the formalities are dispensed with the band begins to play “This Dark and Twisty Road,” which I have to admit, I am not a fan of. The song sounds like something from a Spanish pop album and always sort of makes me cringe. The song is well executed and fairly well received with all of the parts well played and flowing together, but in my mind it is a low point in the night.
Weird keyboard sounds combined with an unusual bass riff make up the opening of the next song and as I cock my head to the side, trying to place the tune, a recorded cello track comes on and leads me to the realization that the song is “Dear Ophelia,” an odd sort of song which mixes dark rock riffs and creepy lyrics to come out as a hybrid tune that doesn’t really fit well into any category. It does fit well into the set, but sort of drags down the mood of the room with its slow tempo and plodding bass line.
The night continues on with high energy songs mixed in with slower, darker tunes, making the show feel up and down rather than progressively energetic. By the end of the night I am actually tired and ready to get moving. The show was impressive with lots of great tunes and effectively used brass fittings and electrodes meant to enhance and make otherwise mundane stage props look exotic, but the whole thing really managed to wear me out.
As I am preparing to wander out I hear the most bizarre and unlikely tune as it floats down from the stage…Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” I am so surprised that I actually do a double take before turning to see what in the world is going on. I see a darkened stage and, at first, assume that it’s just a sound guy with good taste in music playing something over the PA system while the crowd waits for the encore, but then a spotlight comes on and I see Robert Brown singing. The rest of the band joins him on stage to play a really well done cover of the song as the audience stare at them in stunned silence. It may be the single most unusual thing that I have ever seen at a show. I begin to laugh a little too loudly as I sway from side to side and sing along. The song sounds darker than the original, but does a good job of paying homage without sounding like a cheap copy. I decide that absolutely nothing else that might happen tonight could possibly top Abney Park covering Lou Reed and head back to the hotel happy and exhausted.