SPWF Overview & Why I love Independent Artists

My Haul – as you can see, it’s mostly music related. 1 Humanwine T-shirt, 2 Feline & Strance CDs, 2 Scott Helland CDs, 1 Eli August CD. I would have bought a few other albums, but I wasn’t able to get to their tables before they closed.

The Steampunk World’s Faire  is located in Piscataway, NJ and runs for one weekend a year in mid-May. I’ve never been able to go for the entire weekend, but I have gone Saturday every year since the 2nd year it ran. I remember a packed house at the Doubletree Hotel, which proved a venue far too small for event patronage, and followed it when it moved to the Embassy Suites & Radisson – two hotels that sit directly next to each other. The event spans both of them – and the Midway parking lot area between them.

Now, I discovered steampunk through science fiction books, but I stayed for the music, and that’s why  SPWF is totally relevant to this blog.  Left to my own devices, I can easily turn the event into a giant concert featuring independent musicians that are just not built for mainstream radio.  I can’t cover the entire event in one post, so I’ll just give a basic overview and some atmosphere today, talk about the festival, and then talk about individual acts in separate posts, 2 or 3 artists at a time, to prevent this post from becoming a novel.  I also want to listen through the albums I bought in full before I really discuss some of them.

So, the Saturday day pass at SPWF went up to $50 this year from previous years $45.  That’s pretty rich for my blood, and I really debate every year if next year I should attend for the entire weekend. ($50 is more than half the cost of the full weekend). But, as I spend the day Saturday, arriving around 10 am, with events starting around 11, and not getting in the car to drive home, the past two years, until almost 2 in the morning, I definitely feel that I’m getting my money’s worth.

Thinking about it for a moment, when I buy tickets to local concerts at the Starland Ballroom, or the Stone Pony, depending on the band I spend between $20 and $40. At the Starland, add $10 for parking and water. At the Stone Pony, about the same, plus the cost of fuel, since that venue is a 40+ minute drive each way. (Starland is between work and home, so I don’t calculate fuel, as those are miles I am generally driving anyway.) The hotels that feature SPWF is less than half an hour from home for me, so there is a cost of fuel, but it’s pretty minimal. At Starland or Stone Pony, I’m paying to see one band, and on average will see three (one opener touring with, and one local opener is standard. (The exception was the recent Slash show, only 2 bands), spend 4-5 hours at the venue, and are out on average $40-50 depending on whether or not I purchase merch.

Now, SPWF, I spend Over 12 hours at, can see a band an hour (if I am so inclined), and it costs me $50 + cost of merch. So, it is an expensive day, but at $50, and I can average around 10 performances in a day, that actually becomes exceptionally reasonable when looked at in context.

I had a cohort this year, so didn’t actually start on music until around 5 pm. She wanted to see a few of the panels (in non-geek, that’s lectures), and there were no musical performances until six that I was really married to seeing. I knew she would be going home by then (mommies have responsibiliites, and she has a further distance to travel.), so I was perfectly happy to float. There was some interesting non-music stuff going on, anyway, but I’ll spare you as it’s not relevant to this blog.

What is relevant is music. Things that seemed really unfortunate early in the day ended up working to my advantage. This year’s schedule was really upsetting for me, because it seemed like there was less music. The bands I wanted to see were only scheduled for one performance each. Last year, most bands were scheduled for an afternoon and evening performance, which made my day a lot easier to schedule to see all the things I wanted to see.

So I looked at the schedule and saw ‘I can’t see A Halo Called Fred if I see Steam Powered Giraffe, and I probably can’t see Jeff Mach, either. Or Feline & Strange.  I can’t see Eli August & the Abandoned Buildings, because it’s the same time slot as Frenchy & the Punk.   I would really, like to check out Mansara, or Matt DeBlass but they conflict with Humanwine.  The schedule was riddled with things like this.  I was planning my day based on things I was missing versus things I was seeing. Frenchy & the Punk and Humanwine were both non-negotiable, but the sheer volume of things I was going to miss because of those two shows was depressing.

BUT! The Weather. 🙂

We had a day of scattered thunderstorms here in New Jersey. The morning was wet, and most of the day was warm. But there was another burst of rain in the evening.  What that meant was that, while I was watching shows on the indoor stages, apparently, they lost power on the outdoor stages. The bands that were supposed to be performing at the same time ended up performing later, and by sheer chance I ended up catching at least a partial set for most of them. LUCKY!

So, Around 5:15 I started wandering toward music.  First I headed toward the Midway stage to check out the Clockwork Dolls. Full disclosure, there were no technical glitches there, I just didn’t like them. But, that’s okay, there was a stage in the courtyard nearby, so I went over there to see if Jennie Jean (an opera singer, I think) was any better. She was supposed to be on stage from 5-6 pm. I got there around 5:20 or so, saw her perform a short piece, and then stop to pause for photos, and then walk off the stage at 5:30.  I saw no signs that she was getting back on the stage, so moved on to the third stage where I knew there was a musical performance at the time, and which is where I wanted to be at 6:30 anyway.  I caught the last two or three songs by Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, an act i didn’t think I’d be that interested in. You know what? They were great.  Proof that you should only ever judge music with your ears.

At 6:30 Humanwine came on, who are one of my favorites. And they had special guests join them from both Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band and This Way to Egress.  After that it was Frenchy & the Punk, who also did a few songs with a special guest: Peter Ullrich from Dead Can Dance.

After Frenchy & the Punk I had a really tough choice to make, and at first was going to pick Steam Powered Giraffe for the third year running. They’re stupidly popular, and I sometimes hate their fangirls, but they make good music and put on a very entertaining show. But, the rain. I decided I like them, but not enough to stand in the press of excited teenagers in the rain for it, so went onward to see a Halo Called Fred (who got the WORST venue for their performance, but I guess going up against SPG, the faire wasn’t expecting much of an audience. STILL.) That show ended before the SPG show, so, on my way to the next venue, I was able to stop and catch the last few songs of the SPG set at the Midway stage (and, actually I had a better view (but a worse camera view) from outside of the fan-press anyway. And, in those last 3 songs, two of them were among my favorites.  I didn’t stay to see if they would do an encore, but moved on, thinking I was going to catch the tail end of Jeff Mach, the event creator, singing songs he wrote. I’d caught one on facebook not too long ago, and was curious to hear more. But, when I got there, it was not Jeff Mach, but Eli August & the Abandoned Buildings! EEee! Now, disappointed to not see Jeff Mach, BUT, to top of the day with Eli August more than made up for it. Or, so I thought, because juuust as I was about to get up after that set, The sound guy announces ‘don’t go anywhere. Feline & Strange is on at 12:30’. What? WHAT?! They got an extra secret late night set at the last minute so I would be able to see them now? They’re from Berlin, so of course I stayed. The odds of them coming back across the ocean next year were pretty slim. And, they were GREAT. I was tired. But, they were great.

So, you see, of that list that the schedule would have had me miss, I actually did catch most of them. I did not manage to catch Mansara, but I walked by Matt DeBlass playing in the hallway earlier in the day, so I was able to get a little taste of what he’s all about, inadvertently.  I would have liked to see full sets for all the bands I only saw partial sets for, but there are some things that just aren’t possible without a time machine.  I got to see all my favorites, live. And, I also got to sample some brand new stuff. This was really a win all the way around for me.

Let’s give a brief summary here of acts I saw that I’ll discuss a bit in follow-up posts, to limit the length of this one(in no particular order):


Frenchy & The Punk

Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band

Jennie Jean

The Clockwork Dolls

Matt DeBlass

Eli August & The Abandoned Buildings

A Halo Called Fred

Feline & Strange

Steam Powered Giraffe

There were definitely performers I could have seen earlier in the day that I missed, but nothing I can’t look up on youtube and very little that I don’t think I’ll have another opportunity to see live.

Now, I’ve talked in previous posts about my love of punk rock. I’ve mentioned liking the blues. Can I take a minute here to discuss why I love independent artists? Seriously, you’ve got to give these guys credit. They carve out a hard road for themselves, and a lot of them supplement their income with other creative ventures. (For example: Eli August makes artisan soaps.)  There’s also a lot more freedom in independent music to be creative, to try different things, to really think out of the box to figure out how to get the sound you want without the luxury of a studio, and there is always, ALWAYS a close relationship with the fan base.

When I stopped at Eli’s booth to buy another album (I already had ‘for the weak and the weary, which is fantastic), he spent a few minutes talking to me about his latest projects (they’re testing out Patreon), and how they’re using different venues (vacant buildings, etc) to create the sounds they want, and get it out to fans faster that way. Of course, it was part sales pitch (and I do not blame him. At all.), but it was also really interesting and informative. After his show, he walked up the isle and thanked people for coming, and joked about the ‘paper trail’ they had to leave so their fans could figure out where and when they would be playing after the power outage. Feline, of Feline & Strange, was so charmingly happy to show me the pretty pop up way their new (not yet released, but available at SPWF) album opens.

It’s these tiny little details that make independent artists really win your heart. But, that’s not all. Can I tell you how many beautiful, amazing instruments I saw at yesterday’s festival I saw that you will virtually never encounter in mainstream music? Several unique drums, all the accoutrements of a marching band. Cello. Chapman Stick. Banjos and Mandolins and ukuleles (ok, ukes are currently enjoying a mainstream phase, but they go in and out of fashion), clarinet. Several horns. I saw at least one tuba. I don’t even know the names of all of the awesome things used to compose these compositions that are, absolutely, a form of artwork.

Genres within the steampunk genre that range from swing to techno-pop to rock to folk to opera, cabaret, and everything in between.  These are people who have carved a niche for themselves, create an art, and deserve to be acknowledged for that art. And, that is why, even though I am more of an mp3 person. I always, ALWAYS buy CDs at festivals. I want to a) support artists who I know are making most of their income from the event from whatever merchandise they can sell, and b) give them that up front sign that people appreciate what they do. Digital music is great. It’s portable, it’s fast, but it doesn’t give artists that immediacy. With digital music it’s easy to say ‘I’ll buy this later’ and then make a list, and put it off until you no longer remember what it even is. But, more than that, all the performer gets to see is some numbers on a computer screen.  The act of handing an artisan or musician money and taking something physically home is a human interaction that gives the exchange a more intrinsic value that I think independent music would lose its ptimism and sense of community without.  There really isn’t a ‘community’ to the same extent with music that plays on mainstream radio. It’s there, but it fades with time as artists become more and more famous and so many of them lose those roots. The community becomes divided between the famous person(s), and the fans of. So, you get a community of fans of music, where in indie music scenes you get a community of music. The divide isn’t there. There’s a constant dialogue. There’s a constant sense of creation and evolution. It’s one area of music where it’s still okay to experiment, to try something different.

And, that is why I love independent artists, and do my best to support them with what meager income I’m able to spare: because music is art, and art needs the freedom that large labels often don’t leave much room for.

(I’ll add a few photos and links to each band in the posts about them, but only a few, to avoid posts that are far too image heavy and will take forever to load. For those of you who want to see the entire photo album, it’s on the facebook page: here)

Until Next Time: Adding all if my new CDs to itunes. Prepping to discuss them more thoroughly over the next few days.

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