If real life had achievements the same way many video games do then last weekend I would definitely have unlocked some good ones! Participate in a massive Steampunk conga line? Check: achievement unlocked! Get up onstage and dance alongside the legendary Professor Elemental? Check: very fun and happy achievement unlocked!
These antics are all courtesy of local alt-rock / steampunk band, The Mysterious Freakshow, who for the past three years have organised annual Yuletide Steampunk extravaganza at Exeter Phoenix. This year’s event took place last Saturday and it was bigger and more enjoyable than ever, lining up an eclectic array of performers (and proving that Steampunk is one of the most enjoyably eclectic of genres), spreading some seasonal cheer (including plenty of yuletide spirit of the alcoholic variety) and of course, offering a wonderful excuse to get really dressed up. There were some wonderful costumes and everyone was welcome from the very finest bustled Victorian ladies, via crazy mad scientist looking-types, to military gentlemen and even a steampunk Mandalorian (none other than our pal Exeter Cosplay).
Two of my favourite social activities are going to geek conventions (especially when in cosplay) and going to gigs and music festivals. The Steampunk Ball is one of my favourite nights of the year because it feels like the place where these two wonderful things collide. It’s a music event with some really interesting and talented bands performing, but it also has a bit of a nerdy convention feel to it too…
Steampunkery and Geekery
There seems to be a big overlap between steampunk and geek culture. You often see folk in elaborate steampunk outfits at comic conventions, and if being a geek is, as Simon Pegg has said, “about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection” then that’s a description that 100% applies to steampunk with its enthusiasm for the past, for retro science-fiction and for alternative futures. Professor Elemental really epitomises this crossover: as songs like “Enter the Convention” so catchily demonstrate, he’s a steampunk icon and a nerd icon rolled in one pith-helmeted package. If you caught the great interview with him recently on GeekOut South-West you might have noticed the way the he drops of character when he starts talking about comics because his enthusiasm for the subject overwhelms his Prof persona. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the interview, and it was something he actually remarked upon himself when B and I had a brief opportunity to chat to the good Prof before the show. Joel and Timlah from GeekOut had asked us to say hi from them if we got the chance, so we duly passed on the greeting and it was lovely how enthusiastic he was, not only about having done their interview, but about the geek blogging scene in general!
So yes, Professor Elemental has headlined the Steampunk Yule Ball every year since its inception three years ago and he’s the perfect choice for an event that combines great music with the feel of a geek con and which has such a warm atmosphere of accepting eccentricity.
And talking of geek influences… I love dressing up for events like this, though I think my take on steampunk probably betrays me as a gamer and cosplayer. The outfit I put together for this event was a mix of bought and homemade garments (bought corset and gloves, homemade undertop, arms and bloomers) I loved wearing it but suspect the overall effect was a bit like a rogue-class character from a fictional steampunk action RPG. Which I can live with.
This is one of the things I love about the steampunk aesthetic: the way it manages to be so distinctive and instantly recognisable while also encompassing a huge variety of styles and possibilities. B went for a much more classic look with an embroidered waistcoat and brown shirt. But he did wear a mana/health vial necklace much like the one I’m wearing here. His and Hers geek style, that’s how we (transform and) roll (out)!
The schedule was tightly packed, with only 15 minute breaks between the acts. While this was great in terms of offering good variety and value for money it did mean that we didn’t get to see all the bands, as we wanted some time just to mingle, not to mention checking out the Voodoo Lounge where a buffet, tea and cake were on offer. More live music events should provide tea and cake in addition to your more standard bar fare! The result was that this time around we ended up missing The Mysterious Freakshow themselves. Having seen the band on previous occasions, however, I can testify to their charismatic live presence and interesting mix of punky steampunk and 80s goth/new wave influences. Check out their bandcamp page here.
The openers were Cabaret Berlin, who were a great warm up performing 1920s and 30s style music hall numbers with a touch of burlesque and lashings of panache and good humour – or rather bad taste good humour. One of the songs they played was “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers and that set the duo’s tone very well. If – like B and I – you love that musical and find it hilarious then you’d probably enjoy the antics of, ahem, Titi Von Tranz and Herr Doktor Otto Stoffenberger too. Great fun.
Aside from the good Professor himself, the band that B and I were most excited about seeing were The Wattingers. Hmm, how to describe these guys? Well, they describe themselves as “Industrial Slaughterhouse Steampunk Blues” which covers a multitude, but then so does their sound. They have a darkly unique vibe: lots of bass, live harmonica and synth and onstage with southern gothic horror themed onstage personas, as Martin Wattinger sums it up in this interview: “the old American West, an inbred family of outlaws, living out in the swamplands.” Their grisly imagined history feels very much analogous the Drac/Ripper-influenced faux Victorian-noir that is much beloved by steampunks, but in a rural American setting. Like all the best horror stories it’s darkly compelling stuff.
We’ve seen The Wattingers a few times now and they’re just getting better and better, mixing in the blues style tracks with a few heavier and more rockin’ numbers such as “Arkansas Beardstalker” while maintaining a kooky vein of dark humour throughout. I like their ghoulish backstory, and their handcrafted aesthetic with lots of homemade costumes and customised accessories. Particularly memorable is “third member,” the deceased Ezekial Obediah Wattinger, who performs via the “spiricom” – effectively he’s a heavily modifed case for the synths, stylophone and other backing instruments the band use, decorated with a skull as if it were a machine for contacting the dead. We picked up the band’s 2015 Evil Wood CD at the gig, and it’s a great listen. Not for the faint hearted perhaps, but highly, highly recommended for those who enjoy a walk on the wild side.
The next act we saw were The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing who were a new live experience for us. We were fairly near the back for their set and so I didn’t get any particularly good photos but I thoroughly enjoyed their performance which bristled with anarchic energy and definitely put the “punk” into Steampunk. Their set included songs about gin (“The Gin Song”); about that legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (“Brunel”) and, in honour of the season, even a song inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (“Ebenezeer’s Carol.”) Great stuff. You can sample and purchase these songs and many others from the band’s website here.
And then finally there was the chap-hop headliner Professor Elemental. This was the third time we’d seen the Prof live: our expectations were high and we were not disappointed. I wouldn’t describe myself as a rap fan at all but I love what the Professor does. His rhythms and word play are both infectious and impressive and I love the way he blends historical fantasy with geek culture, plenty of feel good atmosphere and a dash of politics. The set was a good mix of old classics like “Fighting Trousers” along with material from The Giddy Limit (internet survival anthem “Don’t Feed the Trolls” is a favourite of mine and it was amusing to hear the giggling of audience members who were clearly encountering its lyrics for the first time). Plus he introduced us to a few tracks from the brand new album Ape Quest. These tracks were debuting for us as we’d planned to buy “Ape Quest” at the gig; we’re firm advocates of buying CDs at live events direct from the artist as the best way to support live music. It’s rather nice to encounter a new song for the first time by hearing it live, especially tracks like “Celebrate” with its party atmosphere. Ape Quest is a fantastic work, a really expansive time-travelling sci-fi influenced concept album with jokes and tunes aplenty – although even before I got the CD I guessed it would have a happy ending, since Geoffrey, the Professor’s orangutan butler and the subject of the titular quest, made a somewhat reluctant appearance onstage during the set.
Professor Elemental really knows how to foster a sense of community. He spent quite a lot of time wandering amongst the audience, chatting and joking and he got us all going with a massive conga line that eventually captured almost the whole audience. It was exhilarating. Audience participation is something you expect from the Prof, and as well as the aforementioned conga he did some freestyle rapping incorporating words he asked us to add to a flipchart. With “clitoris” and “omnishambles” on the list we weren’t kind to him but it was fun and it’s always so impressive to hear how he manages to work these mouthfuls into the mix! During the encore he encouraged people to join him up on stage. I was a little hesitant at first but as we were right at the front anyway I helped a couple of other folk clamber up and before I knew it I’d been pulled up too and I’m so glad I went because it felt great!
To sum up: what a night! This was the last event we had planned for 2015, so it was nice to see out the event-going year on a high. Great fun, fantastic performances and a wonderful sense of community that I was proud to be part of. I’m really glad that Fey Pink of The Mysterious Freakshow had the vision and determination to make this Ball happen and to have kept it running for the past three years. Long may it continue!