I just got back from the Steampunk convention happening this weekend in Silicon Valley.  Last night I attended the Abney Park concert, where costumes were virtually required for all attendees.

I had long known I was aligned with the steampunk aesthetic since before I’d heard there was a word for it.  I also knew there was a steampunk subculture, but I hadn’t given it any real thought — to me it was all about the visuals.  So this convention was my first close look at the culture.  I hadn’t even listened to the band before.  I could never really imagine what steampunk could be like culturally.

On the surface you could simply say that it was the most well-dressed convention crowd of all time.  While there were certain de rigueur conventions in the dress (I felt mighty self-conscious wearing the only top hat — of many dozens — whose brim was not bedecked by a pair of brass goggles, in general the costumes were eclectic and inventive and endlessly entertaining.  And everyone looked good.  Really, really good.  Men were universally dashing and the women, regardless of age, body type or other physical characteristics, looked absolutely dazzling.

But more to the point, the amazing thing about steampunk is its absorptiveness.  It has the latitude to elegantly integrate just about any escapist subculture I’ve ever participated in — Goth, Renaissance Faire, pirate, cyberpunk, sci-fi, Dickens Faire, you name it. (Interestingly, that also pretty well describes headliners Abney Park.)

I had kind of been thinking that this airship had already sailed, and that mainstream culture was going to subsume it imminently.  And there’s plenty of evidence for this.  But now I’m thinking it might have more legs than your typical escapist fare by virtue of its ability to mutate easily.  Take a contrasting example like rockabilly — culturally it occupies a fairly narrow zone with Stray Cats, the Cramps, Bettie Page, 90′s swing etc. at its vertices.  Stray outside that it’s it’s just not rockabilly any more.  So if that’s where you identify, you might be pigeonholed. Pigeonholing steampnk is like scooping up loose mercury by comparison.

Now, if they could just come up with a better name for it.  Seriously.

Abney Park on the Neverwas Haul
Originally uploaded by exoskeletoncabaret

A few words about the band (just the headliner as I missed much of opener Platform One): I came in wondering what the hell a “steampunk band” might be, exactly.  It’s a weakness of mine that I have trouble getting my head around anything that doesn’t have obvious musical points of reference.The answer, as I mentioned earlier, is that it’s an eclectic mix.  The lead singer was engaging and chatty (personality stylistically reminiscent of artist Michael de Meng) and performed admirably despite a case of walking pneumonia (“Whenever I swoon, you gotta take a shot.  And if I hit the floor you have to finish the bottle”) — his doumbek added a sensuous line to many of the songs.

The female singer was beautiful, with a lovely voice and sinuous belly-dancer moves, and charming when she spoke.  In one memorable performance she holstered (!) her mic and became a ballerina automaton with a few saucy flourishes.

The guitarist and violinist, resplendent in a Kit Stølen headpiece, was competent and funny as well.  In order to perform the pieces which required both violin and guitar, audience members would be chosen to hold the violin in such a way that he could grab it quickly in order to switch quickly enough. Naturally these audience members were women, and looked like they belonged on the stage.  I didn’t get to see the bassist much from my angle but he seemed fine and was approachable at the merch table after the show.

The keyboardist was nerdy in a cute way, with an appealing stockings-and-garters ensemble peeking from under her turn-of-the-century military uniform. I’m still a little ambivalent about how the synths integrate into the music.  I’m looking forward to hearing this evolve a bit to blend better.

Absent was a drummer, and for music that was frequently sensuous, the drum programming was a detriment.  A dedicated drummer, or even a dedicated drum programmer, might add considerably to the sound and the live performance.

The instruments were tricked out in steampunk style of course, with gauges and gears and brass ornaments.  A guitar famously designed by steampunk wizard Jake von Slatt looked great, as did the mic stand. (They need to add a bit of function to the form, though — the cable fell out right at the crescendo of one of the songs.) The keyboard was very ornate, though its green plasma-zapper centerpiece looked modern and plasticky, and probably should be covered with a sheet of mica to get the isinglass look.

The songs ran a range of styles, which I liked.  Plus, the band tends to rework classics in an interesting way, such as the crowd favorite, a crunchy, driving version of the trad “Stretched on Your Grave”.

And I can’t help but mention the crowd itself — lots of sensual gothy swiveling in beautiful costume made the live show a lot more enjoyable than I think just listening to the CD’s would be.  I’ll find out — I picked up a couple of CD’s at the merch table.