Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Jang Sa-Ik at the Grand Hyatt Ballroom, NYC 2/25/09

Through an interpreter (his excellent acoustic guitarist), South Korean star Jang Sa-ik explained that due to jet lag (thirty hours, door to door from another time zone), he was only singing at thirty percent.


If what he delivered was less than a third of what he’s capable of, a full-strength show would defy the laws of physics. You heard it here first – Jang Sa-ik is the next world music star. Playing to a crowd of mostly music industry insiders and journalists, he held the audience riveted throughout a stark, intense trio set, backed only by acoustic guitar and drums instead of the chamber ensemble and choir who typically accompany him on his home turf. As a vocalist, Jang projects powerfully but without any of the campy kabuki theatricality that typifies so many popular Asian performers. Throughout the show, it always seemed that he had something in reserve, even on the biggest crescendos. In his delivery were hints of both Roy Orbison and Bobby Bland, especially when he’d add a tinge of grit at the end of a phrase, or let it trail off with a slight vibrato. Essentially, Jang is a soul singer, a fact that translated viscerally to the at least fifty percent American crowd, despite the fact that he sang only in Korean.


Vocals aside, Jang’s greatest strength is his songwriting, revealing itself as influenced by late 50s/early 60s American pop and blues as much, maybe if not more, than any traditional sound. He opened the set with a spiritual, a funeral march whose title translates as The Way to Heaven, intoning ominously like Howlin’ Wolf as the slow, haunting anthem got underway. Like something from the Harry Smith anthology, it sounded half slave hymn, half minimalist delta blues, except with lyrics in Korean and a big, dramatic conclusion where the narrator can finally see his golden reward.


The second song of the set was Jang’s biggest Korean hit, Wild Rose, a dark and eerie pop song with a noir 60s feel – wait til David Lynch finds out about this guy. Its theme is bittersweetness, although it felt much darker. Daejeon Blues – a swinging, ominous minor-key blues song – maintained the edgy intensity, a sad narrative told from the point of view of an intinerant worker having to leave his girlfriend behind because now he has to take a different, low-budget train to a different, low-budget city. Another 60s-inflected pop song, Spring Rain brought back the noir vibe, with vocalese on the outro that screamed out quietly for a singalong. He closed the set with what he said was the “Korean national anthem,” Airirang, a sardonically metaphorical folk song whose narrator cautions the woman who’s leaving him that she won’t get far before her feet get sore. Jang earned great acclaim (and considerable notoriety, on the north side anyway) for singing this before a soccer match between the South and North Korean national teams.


Jang is also something of a feel-good story (it’s a made-for-tv movie waiting to happen). Born in 1949, the son of an amateur oboeist, he only began playing his father’s instrument in adulthood. Well into his forties, after years of itinerant work, one dead-end job after another, he finally made his debut as a singer. In 1993, he embarked on a fulltime career in music and has never looked back. Now, at 59, he’s looking to conquer the west. It’s bound to happen, the only question is when – his New York City debut, at City Center in 2007, was a sellout. Discover him now for the sake of cachet…and for the haunting intensity of his voice and his songs. 

February 27, 2009 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Wow. I attended this show, considered writing a short post about it–but since you took most of the words out of my mouth, and added so many excellent ones of your own, I may not bother. I agree with everything here. Jang is a phenomenal talent, and the soul inflections (I heard Sam Cooke more than Bobby Bland, but I see your point) might give him a big boost with Western listeners. And when was the last time a star stood at the exit and shook the hand of every departing audience member?

    Comment by James Marcus | March 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. You should write a short post about it. As everyone who was there should. I didn’t get to shake the guy’s hand but my girlfriend sure loved that scarf!

    Comment by lc | March 3, 2009 | Reply

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