By: Hannah Waitt
Last week, SXSW hosted its fourth ever “K-pop Night Out” showcase in Austin, Texas. As the world’s biggest music industry conference and festival, an invitation to SXSW is not only an honor but a privilege for the artists lucky and talented enough to receive one. Over the past 30 years, SXSW has established itself as the place where up-and-coming artists go to become headlining artists, and this year’s K-pop showcase was no exception.
Each year SXSW brings a diverse lineup of Korean artists to perform at “K-pop Night Out”, including artists who aren’t exactly “K-pop”, per se. In addition to this year’s more recognizable acts, the roster of Korean artists featured glam metal band Victim Mentality, electro-indie group Love X Stereo, and minimal EDM producer Haihm, all of whom performed expertly within their own genres.
When the lights went down again though, it was clear who the crowd was there for. A spattering of radish-shaped lights flew up into the air (a hilariously confusing anomaly to our Texan photographer) as MAMAMOO took the stage, kicking off their set with their debut track “Mr. Ambiguous”.
Sporting a ‘70s inspired ensemble, the group continued their set with “Piano Man”, never faltering in their vocals or choreography despite the small stage and unexpectedly close physical proximity to the crowd. The setlist continued with MAMAMOO’s ballad single, “I Miss You”, and if there was any doubt about their live vocals before, it vanished as Solar belted out notes with such forceful timbre that it was hard to believe a sound like that could come from someone 5’4” and 94 pounds.
The group picked up the pace with their two latest hits “Um Oh Ah Yeh” and “You’re The Best”, continuing to impress the crowd with their live four part harmonies up to the very last chord, before closing out their set with “Taller Than You”, sending the crowd into a near frenzy at the song’s final drop.
For a group accustomed to performing on isolated stages where the audience seems too far to see, MAMAMOO adapted to the festival setting well. That being said, the one critique I have of the group’s performance (and mind you, this is coming from a Day 1 MooMoo), is the lack of connectivity that they had with the audience. Part of this may have been the audience’s fault – for the most part, the crowd stood still, phones in the air, focused more on getting a good video for Instagram or Snapchat than on actually enjoying the show.
Hwasa’s feisty stage presence was the closest the group came to really connecting with the crowd, but as a native Austinite and frequent music festival attendee, there was something noticeably distant about the group’s performance; it was as if I was watching them on Inkigayo or Music Bank, rather than live and in person. MAMAMOO’s performance was calculated, polished, and very, very good, but until their last song, it lacked that thrilling, off-the-cuff, hype factor that SXSW artists normally aim for.
MAMAMOO was undoubtedly the act I was most excited to see at this year’s “K-pop Night Out”, but I walked away from the showcase most impressed with the act that followed them: DEAN. It’s safe to say that after his SXSW performances (there were a total of three throughout the week), the formerly underground R&B singer has officially gone above ground.
With a sound reminiscent of some combination of Kentucky trap soul singer Bryson Tiller and Korean soul star Crush, DEAN had the crowd in a manic state from the moment his first track started. He kicked off his set with his sexy club banger “Put My Hands On You”, hyping up the crowd with call and response lines like “Make some muthafuckin’ noise!” and choruses of “Ay! Ay! Ay! Let’s get it!” – simple yet rare adlibs to the normally predictable K-pop set.
DEAN utilized the entirety of the stage as he continued his set with “Pour Up”, covering Zico’s featured rap part with ease to the delighted squeals of fangirls throughout the audience. The set progressed with high-energy performances of “I’m Not Sorry” and the exclusive debut of his just-released track, “Bonnie and Clyde”.
K-pop has always been about control – tight, controlled choreography, stable, controlled vocals, well-behaved, controlled idols – and what made DEAN’s performance so outstanding was his lack of it. He allowed his art and his passion to overtake him in a way that is unseen in the overly refined, overly produced, overly regulated performances of most K-pop artists. We could see it in his movement and could hear it in his voice, and that contagious outpour of energy is what caused everyone to put their phones down and their hands up and mosh with DEAN as he powered through a spotlight-stealing set.
When I write that SXSW is the place “where up-and-coming artists go to become headlining artists”, I am talking about DEAN. Not only did the newcomer steal the show at “K-pop Night Out,” but he also had what it takes to perform in lineups alongside big names in the Western music industry like Miguel and Anderson Paak at other non-Korea specific events at SXSW. If DEAN isn’t on your radar yet, put him there because he is the next big thing to come out of Seoul.
Zion.T headlined the night backed by The Messengers, an incredibly talented band that normally accompanies Zion.T’s famous box-headed friend, Primary. Zion.T has a slew of R&B and funk hits that have catapulted him from an underground singer and composer to one of Korea’s biggest stars in just the past three years. The crowd was tangibly anxious to see the sunglass-sporting soul singer perform his biggest songs live, but the problem was that no one could sing along – not because they didn’t know the words, but because Zion.T and the Messengers played unrecognizable arrangements of his hits.
There is no doubt that the songs were beautifully and artfully orchestrated, but I found myself wishing that I were watching the performance at a cozy jazz club or in a private studio session rather than at a live venue with 3,000 people still hyped and sweaty from the previous performances. Zion.T has one of the best brains in the industry, so his adlibs were musically exquisite but impossible to follow from an audience perspective.
He and the band performed reggae and bossa versions of the hits and spent a good part of the first 5 minutes of his set scatting. Hearing these new renditions of songs like “Yanghwa Bridge”, “Eat”, “Babay”, and more was special and enjoyable, but it was a more aurally focused, less participative, easy listening kind of enjoyment, as opposed to the bass thumping mosh-inducing full on physical experience of a festival. Zion.T brought the energy way up for his last two songs “See Through” and “Spin Spin”, finally getting the crowd to stop swaying and start jumping as he closed out his set.
The crowd filed out of the Belmont happy but exhausted after a long night of thrilling and creative performances from Korea’s best. The 2016 edition of “K-pop Night Out” was certainly one for the books, boasting record attendance after moving to its biggest venue yet, speaking to the ever-increasing popularity of the niche genre. “K-pop Night Out” will forever be one of the most intimate settings in which you can see K-pop artists perform, so we here are moonROK were honored and grateful to be invited back again this year, and can’t wait to see what 2017 brings for the showcase.
Tags: DEAN Live MAMAMOO Review SXSW Zion.T