Thursday, March 13, 2014

SXSW: Notes from K-Pop Night Out

The Korean's first show was K-Pop Night Out, held at Elysium just a few hours after the Korean's arrival into Austin. Here are some notes and impressions from the show.

- I got to the venue about 30 minutes before the show began. The line looked like this.


Luckily, because that line did not apply to SXSW badge holders, we walked right in. This was the venue.


A good-sized space. It was a healthy-sized crowd--around 250 people, swelling and contracting throughout the night. The crowd was strongly Asian, but not exclusively so. The non-Asian contingent fluctuated between 20 to 50 percent throughout the night. The space was just the right size, with enough body heat to get oneself into the mood of things. In many ways, it was the ideal setting.

The screens cycled the music videos from the artists who were set to appear on the show.


One snag, however, was that Kiha & the Faces [장기하와 얼굴들] was unable to make it to SXSW due to visa issues. Hollow Jan took their place instead.

Reviews of each performance after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.




- I find it interesting that the showcase is called "K-Pop Night Out," although there are only two (Jay Park and HyunA) who would fall under the narrow definition of "K-pop" (i.e. idol pop.) It lends further credence to the point that I have been consistently making: that "K-pop" must broadly mean "Korean pop music," which is much greater than "Korean idol pop music." I am encouraged by the crowd. It was only 7:30 p.m.; surely, they did not all come here just to watch HyunA doing stripper moves at 1:30 a.m.

- Jambinai comes on. There will be another post introducing this band more in depth, but Jambinai might be the most unique band in Korean indie scene. The three members play guitar, geomungo [거문고] and haegeum [해금], the last two being traditional Korean instruments. Traditional Korean music meets rock 'n roll.

Unfortunately, the sound system did not cooperate, giving a lot of feedback and annoying extra noise. But Jambinai soldiered on, and the crowd responded positively.

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- Nell is next. I absolutely love Nell, but there is no other way to say this: Nell had a bad show. Nell's showcase was mostly made up of songs from their latest album, which was not reviewed particularly well. I have not yet listened to the latest album, but I am inclined to agree with the reviews after hearing Nell perform. A 13-year-old band with five regular albums (seven if one counts pre-debut albums) need to explore the new frontier. Instead, Nell ends up sounding like a slightly more serious CN Blue. Not a good thing.

To be fair to Nell, the sound system continued to be uncooperative. Kim Jong-wan [김종완], Nell's front man, had to stop the performance between songs to keep tinkering with the sound balance. Nell's meticulousness with their sound is well known, but this was one of the instances in which it would have been better to simply perform rather than to dither.

(EDIT 3/13/2014:  I made a mistake about Nell's set. Other than Ocean of Light, Nell's performance was mostly from their previous albums. I made the mistake because I was interviewing Jambinai during the later part of Nell's set, and I could not focus on the music. I stand by the overall point that Nell had a bad show. At least in the first 10 minutes of the set, I did not hear the sound that I expected from them. But my apologies about the factual error. I am new at this covering-concerts gig; I will do better next time.)

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- Hollow Jan comes on. They are beginning with a disadvantage: they were a last-minute stand-in for Kiha & the Faces, whose folksy style is very different from Hollaw Jan's. For those who came to the showcase expecting the likes of Jay Park and HyunA, Hollow Jan's screamo rock must have been a shock to the system.

As they always do, Hollow Jan exploded on stage. About half of the crowd was stunned and scared. But surprisingly, the other half of the crowd LOVED them. After one of the songs, one guy bellowed: "THAT WAS AWESOME!!!" Numerous banging heads were seen.

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- Crowd became visibly excited as Crying Nut was going through sound check. It has been more than a decade since I have seen Crying Nut live. In the intervening decade, Crying Nut went from a merry band of youngsters to the consummate professionals. Crying Nut was playing their second SXSW festival, and the experience showed. The band's interaction with the crowd--speaking the right phrase in English, inducing audience participation, high-fiving the audience at the right moment--was natural and flawless. If any band could represent Korea's rock 'n roll, it is this one.

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- Went to the restroom during intermission. Was almost sure that the heavily tattooed fella in front of the urinal next to mine was Jay Park.

- In terms of audience interaction, Idiotape was the polar opposite of Crying Nut. The band got up there, and did not speak a word. Not even the perfunctory, "Hello, we are Idiotape." Instead, they open with 12 minutes of electronica, only taking three-second breaks as they moved onto the next song, then the next. For over 40 minutes, Idiotape only played music, not saying a single word.

And the crowd went wild. Spontaneous dance party broke out in different corners of the venue. Turns out, Idiotape had the best clubbing music among all the bands performing for the showcase. Somehow, a concentration of hot girls emerged in front of me, and began losing themselves in the music. Idiotape mixed in their version of Beastie Boys' Sabotage, which took the show to another level.

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- In the intermission, I feel that the crowd has changed significantly. It was younger, and more screamy. Burly guys appeared in front of the stage, lest a fan should jump onto it. The space between people got a lot tighter.

The crowd suddenly became restless. I looked up to the direction of the camera phone, and there she was. Lady Gaga was in the sound booth, preparing to check out the next acts. Which made me face up to the unpleasant reality: although the showcase featured five rock and electronica musicians from Korea, the real show was about the two K-pop acts coming up next.

- Jay Park comes on, sounding like a Korean love child between Macklemore and Justin Bieber. He first appears with baggy jeans and jacket, and performed a slow-moving strip tease over the next 40 minutes, eventually revealing his chiseled and tattooed torso. Camera phones were everywhere. The girls were dying with screams.

Jay Park is talented enough, and his presence was tolerable enough to this rock 'n roll fan. But apparently, Jay was starting a new record label called AOMG, and his crew was on the stage with him to be introduced to the crowd. And the crew--particularly one guy named Loco--was simply not ready for prime time. Every one of them had the shit-eating, "I'm-just-glad-to-be-here" grin on their face. Yes, I know Loco won Show Me the Money, the rap battle show on Mnet. I don't care. I like my artists with charisma, not "I-don't-belong-here-but-thanks-for-having-me" vibe. It was like watching Jesse's crew on Breaking Bad: a bunch of dregs following a half-decent leader.

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- I thought I hate-watched enough performances in my life, but I never hate-watched as much as I hate-watched HyunA's set. It is looking increasingly clear that HyunA does not belong to the upper echelon of K-pop's idol market. The cream of the crop in Korea's idol pop eventually rise by finding their own voice and personality. Lee Hyo-ri did so; more recently, Ga-In is doing the same. In contrast, HyunA is exactly the same as she was two years ago: that is to say, generic.

This showed in HyunA's set. Sincerity is hard to fake on live stage, especially if one lip-synchs the entire set. HyunA made all the appropriate stripper moves, but they were not sexy. In fact, the girls in front of me who were dancing to Idiotape were incomparably sexier, because they were genuinely having a good time. HyunA was not; she was there for business, and that was all. It was a painful 30 minutes to endure. Even the crowd, who was completely ready to love HyunA, was not responding as enthusiastically as it could have.

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All in all, K-Pop Night Out was a fantastic success. The venue was packed, people reacted enthusiastically, and the music was (for the most part) phenomenal. Great way to finish the first day at SXSW.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

9 comments:

  1. "Slightly more serious CN Blue" Ouch. That's disappointing :( CN Blue is...sorry....extremely dull...I LOVE Nell and really want to see them live...it sucks that they had a difficult time with the set...

    Even as a fan of very few idol groups, I was actually puzzled why Jay Park and HyunA were even chosen...there are groups and solo artists that are part of the "idol" pop that would better represent that part of Kpop. Kim Junsu (like DBSK/JYJ or not, this guy can sing and is a hell of a performer), G-Dragon, Ga In, Gummy, IU, Epik High.....

    On another note...isn't YB supposed to be playing at SXSW?

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    1. YB is playing tonight -- there is a probably reasonably accurate list of the Korean bands playing SXSW this year here: http://americankpopfans.com/2014/03/11/guide-to-korean-bands-at-sxsw-schedule/

      I don't see any mention of Galaxy Express in the schedule, though they had been listed as attending in the news.

      I think G-D and Junsu would be too big to have in a sampler show like this -- they can fill U.S. arena shows on their own, or at least with their bands.. Ga-in could fit, though, since she is, in American eyes, the "other Psy girl", but I don't think her management is interested in pursuing the U.S. market. Epik High would have been good though, or MFBTY ( Tiger JK, Yoon Mi Rae & Bizzy's new group).

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  2. Thank you for this re-cap, well done and informative, especially liked the videos of each group. I've been immersed in a self-directed exploration of, how should I phrase this? Korean popular culture with a historical twist via historical dramas for the past 15 months and remain enchanted and fascinated by the purity, creativity, beauty, humor, dedication, etc., etc., of the culture as viewed from a distance.
    Your FB posts add to the overall frame of 'keeping it real'.

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  3. FYI, Nell did not sing a single new song from their latest regular album (6th one, titled Newton's Apple). They sang 2 songs from their 1st album, Let it Rain (유령의 노래, 믿어선 안될말), 1 from their 2nd album Walk Through Me (백색왜성), 1 from their 4th album Separation Anxiety (1:03), 1 from their 5th album Slip Away (Cliff Parade), and 1 from their EP Escaping Gravity (Ocean of Light). These songs are not their newest songs, but rather songs from their old albums that weren't title songs. As a old Nell fan, I really appreciated their music selection, that they didn't sing their hit songs straight but rather sang songs that showed the variety of the band. But regardless of my opinion, I think you should not review stuff that you don't know, and only say about stuff that you do know.

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    Replies
    1. My bad. After Ocean of Light I was outside interviewing Jambinai. The post is corrected. Thanks for raising this.

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    2. Are you okay? Were you there when it happened? Hope you are safe.

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    3. No, thankfully I was already turned in for the night when the drunk driving rampage happened. Terrible stuff, though.

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  4. I couldn't agree with you more about Hyuna's set. I work at the venue, I host KPOP events there on a monthly basis. Most of the crown there (non korean) were the ppl who come to our events and were super excited to see Jay Park and Hyuna. My friend came up to me (he's a die hard Hyuna fan) and he was like "She seems like she's tired…I'm glad she's here, but I just couldn't get into it and have fun" which was the same way I felt. I had been there since 3pm and was there for all of the bands sound checks. Jay showed up and did his thing. He was a very nice guy, nothing like what I've heard and what people have said about him, we talked about tattoos and I had helped him find a pair of scissors so he could cut his shirt because it was really hot inside the venue. He hung out for a bit, then got restless and said "fk it i'm going outside to say hi to my fans" he went out to the crowd outside waiting in line with the sun beaming down hard on them. He greeted them and asked them questions, goofed around and danced around for them. Hyuna arrived about 30 minutes after Jay's soundcheck. Her soundcheck was exactly 8 minutes, and then she left back to her hotel. She was very polite and even told everyone (staff) on the mic, after her sound check "thank you and work hard" in Korean.

    It was really awesome to see the other bands as well, I was actually SUPER excited to hear other musical acts from Korea and not just KPOP. Even though I LOVE Kpop and I'm obsessed with it, hearing different genres was refreshing.

    Austin, let alone anywhere in TX, rarely gets Kpop acts here. So to have two of the biggest idols perform in our city meant a lot to the Kpop community and scene here. I really hope next year will be even greater!

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    1. AND GAGA WAS NICE! :D SHE GRABBED MY HAND AND TOLD ME SHE LIKED MY HAIR! *dies*

      …my boss and friend (one of the door guys) took shots with her. So jealous haha. I'm more excited to know that Lady Gaga loves KPOP!

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