Llanfyllin is a small town in North Wales. Easily accessible from the M56, it’s home to the Llanfyllin Workhouse. Originally a workhouse for inmates, it was opened in 1837 and operated until 1930. It was taken over until 1983 when it closed it’s doors after operating as a care home. Following a very short stint as an outdoor pursuits centre, it remained closed until 2008 when local residents attained full ownership and transformed it into a Community Centre.
It took me a good three hours to get to Llanfyllin from my base in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. It was a pleasant drive of mostly greenery once I’d navigated the Manchester circular. After racing along small, winding country roads for 30-40 minutes I rounded a corner and approached the Workhouse. Once greeted by the gate staff and shown to a parking space, I went to have a look around the location. The Workhouse is a fairly large community area.
Arguably not the first place you’d think of to host a music festival, but the way people fitted themselves into the space, it looked like a natural choice. The shape of the workhouse is a rough cross, give or take appendages that make it look more like a window with a crossed frame. Based on other workhouse designs, this was likely to be able to allow segregated yard area for men, women, girls and boys.
The yard area that led to the market stalls housed the main stage. There were many bands playing from multiple cultures and genres, but for the purposes of this report I’ll be focusing on the steampunk linked bands more; as well as the general ambience of the event. Other yards had a food court with a cocktail bar and coffee tent, a play area for the kids and alongside the main car park you could enter the GASP stage area. That also had the Time Travelling Tea Tent and Paul Snook’s Ichabod Steam & his Animatronic Band.
Phoenix Main Stage artists
The main stage was hosted by Montague Jacques Fromage – hip hop funk artist, globe trotting time traveller and steampunk sweetheart. Jezebel Steele handled the indoor sets.
The artists that I managed to see were The Dark Design, Titi Von Tranz, The Wattingers, Gurdybird, BB Blackdog and Victor & The Bully. I wanted to see Feline & The Strange but I had to arrange where I was staying (generously provided by Rob from Steampunk.Global – you must visit his site, it’s really very good) at that moment. I’m determined to see them perform at some point though.
I did manage to catch a portion of the BB Blackdog set which was as impressive in reality as it is on CD or DVD. Dale is such a seasoned pro at this, he just casually leans back on his chair and belts out a well known track. Dale from Blackdog is the organiser of the event and he does it all not for profit. That keeps the costs as low as possible. I paid just over £60 for a VIP ticket which gave me a goodie bag with CDs, DVDs, patches, flyers and other assorted stuff. It also got me a ride on the steam train on the Saturday morning.
It’s a pleasant ride from Welshpool to Llanfair. The ride takes around 30-40 minutes and we simply swapped trains to go back for the immediate return journey. Keeping us entertained throughout the journey was the gorgeous Miss Von Trapp with her steampunk styled nursery rhymes and songs. We also had the equally gorgeous Montague Jacques Fromage with us. He got us all laughing and posed for pictures along the way. I felt that the amount that the ticket cost was excellent value for a full weekend festival. There are additions to pay such as a £5 charge for camping on the Workhouse Grounds and you can also upgrade to a glamping tent. The £5 goes to the Workhouse to help maintain it, so it’s all going to a great cause.
Being a festival, not many people went to sleep early on the Friday night and we drank and chatted through until the early hours of Saturday morning. We all gathered around the fire pit next to the stalls to keep warm although the blanket of cloud ensured it was naturally warm anyway. Some people jammed, others talked. It was a nice few hours. Eventually we drifted off to our tents.
Not being the camping type, I was up a few hours later. Entertainment wasn’t due to start until 10.30 so I had a few hours to kill which I spent taking another look round while it was quiet. I found this helped me get my bearings better. After the 10.30 steam train ride we returned in time to join Dutch Photographer Ruud De Korte on an action shoot on the hillside. Ruud’s images are impressive not only in their execution but also in their creation. Many photographers – myself included – have an idea of a shot they want to make and add various editing techniques in after. Ruud will have the full image in his head from the start so he knows exactly how he wants every portion of the frame to look. It means he gets exactly into position to get the shot at precisely the right time.
After watching Ruud work and generally getting in his way, the shoot was completed and we made our way back to the festival. I immediately found my way to the play area which is a lush garden with a short cut lawn and some trees. There we had the steampunk group shoot before everyone drifted back off into the throng. I hung around and helped Gurdybird with her new music video by being one of the foxes. She was filming footage for her new song Tomorrow the Fox Will Come To Town. This was another great example of how steampunks will help each other. An artist (Gurdybird) wanted to make a video and not only did people give up their time to make it happen, but some were contributing props, accessories and camera gear.
Early Saturday evening saw the start of the steampunk band’s sets. It kicked off at 17.15 with Victor & The Bully playing in Jezebel’s Lounge. Both Matt and Harry were on fine form – especially Harry who jumped in and finished off Devil’s Got My Soul when Matt’s string broke on his Ukelele. I managed to film a performance of their new single Beelzebub Boogie.
I saw The Dark Design for the first time and really enjoyed what they do. Their songs have stories to them and instead of explaining it before the song starts, they include it as a preamble while the music warms up. It’s an interesting way of explaining the reasons behind the lyrics. Gordon has a great voice and a charismatic presence. He was noticeable on Friday night walking round spraying mist into people’s mouths that later I discovered was Absynthe. I managed to film their performance of Queen of the Sea and got footage of the automated percussion system. I’ll be reviewing his new EP in the coming weeks, so keep a lookout for that.
Along with The Dark Design, I also managed to see The Wattingers. I’ve only recently discovered the sound of this band and they have an interesting dark, horror vibe going on. I love their videos and the low tones of the music. Martin – the Lead Singer – was dressed in a long black coat with a wide brimmed hat, beard cleft in two and one white eye. He resembles the preachers of the Old West who would set up a cult community in Utah or somewhere similar. Laurence – on Guitar – wore a sack cloth mask with yellow glowing eyes and random spikes sticking through the cloth. He complimented it with a wedding dress. I’ve uploaded a video onto the YouTube channel which you can watch via this link to see what they do.
Jezebel Steele rounded off the entertainment with a Late Night cabaret show before Yorkshire Steampunk group icon Baron Von Krakenhunter took us into the early hours with a DJ set.
Sunday was a much more relaxed day as the festival was coming to a close. There were plenty more bands on that were very good. It’s great to be able to go to a festival and hear radically different sounds to open your mind to. I used the day to stroll the market and chat to a few vendors. Rob from Steampunk.global had a tent set up with various clothes for men and women. He also had some accessories that he was selling for charity. Darren and Sarah from Amy’s Steampunk Emporium had a stand with Darren’s hand made steampunk accessories from packs of gears to hydraulic arms, armour and leather and brass plague masks. I managed to have a look round the steampunk campervan that was on display and grabbed an EP from new artist Jake Holt. I’ll be reviewing that in the coming weeks as well. I did manage to catch the final performance of Titi Von Tranz. She performed a number of songs in various languages including English, German, Spanish and Yiddish! It’s a very interesting experience and I recommend having a listen to her music.
Because of my long drive back I had to miss the tail end of the event which included Monty performing his steampunk funk bizarre. Hopefully I’ll see it next time.
Phoenix Alternative Festival is very different from other steampunk events. There’s less pomp and ceremony and more down and dirty. The outfits people wear are more of a rough and ready variety than the top hats and tail coats. There’s a lot of prop weaponry. I can’t work out what it is that does it, but the atmosphere of the festival seems to bring people together much faster. I’d only been there three minutes and I’d been greeted by six strangers. I didn’t expect to be ignored, but it’s nice to acknowledge positive parts of the weekend and that was one of them.
Being thrown into a small area with 200 people makes you or breaks you, I think. The lack of sleep will have you living on minimal food, maximum coffee and adrenalin. It was certainly a memorable event and being in it’s sixth year is a firm favourite on the steampunk calendar.
It helps that Dale runs the event as a not for profit enterprise. He makes sure that the money goes to charities such as the Workhouse it’s held at and MIND.
The location nestled into the rolling Welsh hills make the festival extremely isolated. While there is a nearby town of Llanfyllin, it can’t be seen and traffic is at a minimum. It could also be this that focuses your senses on your immediate surroundings and allows you to appreciate what’s happening right in front of you.
If you’re looking for an event that lasts the weekend and you don’t mind roughing it (although with glamping tents you don’t have to) then you need to experience Phoenix. It’s certainly a weekend that I’m going to attend again.
More pictures of the event can be found here: