Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Jang Sa-ik at New York City Center 4/18/09

[Editor’s note: special thanks to Jinho Jang, proprietor of the 32nd St. jazz hideaway J’z for his invaluable help with translations]


Jang Sa-ik is a populist phenomenon in his native South Korea. Despite being virtually ignored by corporate radio and tv, he’s become something of a Springsteen there, with six chart-topping albums and consistently sold-out concerts extending throughout the Korean diaspora around the world. As with Fela and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan before him, there’s every reason to believe that there’s a mass audience here in the US ready to anoint him as the first Korean world music star. Saturday night’s powerful, marathon performance vividly revealed some of the reasons behind his status as a cultural icon. With a fifteen-piece band and choir, the concert began as riveting, darkly rich orchestral spectacle, morphing into an upbeat stadium show and ending as carefree karaoke, the once-sedate, sold-out audience transformed and raising their voices.


The lights went down for the first part, ominous, majestic and white-knuckle intense like a Pink Floyd concert. Jang has lately been doing his live show in three stages, beginning with Death, moving to Life and then to what could be characterized as the Good Old Days. Unsurprisingly, it was death’s icy hand that exerted the most powerful grip as the 59-year-old singer, immaculate in a white traditional Korean robe, strode to the mic and in a potently projected baritone, backed only by the piano, worldlessly intoned the long introduction to the stately dirge Back to Heaven. As influenced by American soul music as by pansori (Korean operatic singing) and the rural folk music that he first heard as a child, Jang drew out the notes, often ending a phrase with an impassioned, somewhat raspy vibrato evocative of Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke. The majestic, epic orchestration of the next several songs aptly evoked their English titles: Empty Ocean, Dusk Road and then the best song of the night, This Is Not It, equal parts haunting, memorable minor-key anthem and cautionary tale to seize the day (otherwise This Is Not It becomes This Was It).


Jang then left the stage and the lights went up for an interminable drum solo that morphed into primitive heavy  metal, the guitarist (now on Telecaster) joining in the melee. Finally, Jang returned (he’d used the interlude to change into a loosely immaculate grey suit) and they launched into an irresistibly amusing version of the rock ballad Silly Angel (from Jang’s latest cd, Volume 6/Mother, See the Flowers) done here as simple Black Sabbath-style stomp complete with leaden funk-metal interlude. “Welcome to the club!” Jang laughed after they finally wrapped it up.


From there, the band made their way through a mix of Jang’s hits and Korean pop standards, mostly from the 60s and 70s. His Roy Orbison-inflected, somewhat noir pop hit Wild Rose took on an ELO-style grandeur, contrasting with lighter fare such as the popular standard Daejeon Blues (featuring some nice, jazzy muted trumpet) and a medley of singalong covers ranging from psychedelic-tinged 60s inflected pop to a rather cloying number that sounded like an Asian version of Bread. The last of the encores was Airirang, the national folk song of Korea, vastly preferred over the national anthem of either country because it predates the nation’s division by any of the colonizing powers who’ve tormented its native population over the centuries. At the end of the show, Jang offered a heartfelt thanks to the audience for having helped him conquer the nasty cold he’d caught after arriving here, telling them that they’d kept him warm throughout the show. No doubt he’d done the same. “You are deep and beautiful like the night,” Jang told the crowd as he left the stage, perhaps inadvertently but perfectly capsulizing his appeal.

April 20, 2009 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , ,


  1. Great critic of appreciation you wrote! It was really a great concert
    Thank you for crediting me in detail thru’ Editor’s note.
    Lucid Culture will be one of my favorites on my computer from now on.

    Comment by Jinho Jang | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  2. It’s great that this show was reviewed! Thanks for posting. On a side note, South Korea is a part of Northeast Asia, not Southeast.

    Comment by Sherrie | May 4, 2009 | Reply

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