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 | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jennifer Niceley Live at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 2/7/08

Move over, Eleni Mandell. Make some room, Rachelle Garniez. Neko Case, scooch. Meet the next great noir chanteuse: Jennifer Niceley. Tonight the Tennessee singer/guitarist held the crowd at the Rockwood spellbound throughout her all-too-brief, barely half-hour set. Singing with a smoky, slightly breathy contralto rich with jazz and soul inflections and playing a hollowbody Danelectro Les Paul copy with just a hint of distortion, she proved as adept at sunny soul music as the eerily glimmering, reverb-drenched, slowly swaying minor-key ballads that she clearly loves so well. Her best song of the evening, possibly titled Shadows & Mountains, describes a woman taking a long, David Lynch-esque drive through the night. At the end of the song, after she’s finally gotten past them, she ends up at the edge of a lake praying in the dark that everything will be all right. Niceley followed this with two more slow, torchy minor-key numbers from her new album, Luminous, that were equally chilling.

Growing up in the country in East Tennessee, she explained, her father was a huge Jimmy Rodgers fan, so she played a slightly jazzed-up version of one of his songs. She also treated the audience to her own rearrangement of the Bobby Bland/Little Milton blues classic Blind Man (which she retitled Blind Woman), a showcase not only for her vocals but also for her lead guitarist, who played the most riveting solo we’ve heard all year long. Using a slide, he swooped around, pushing the beat as if to mimic the sound of backward masking (sounds like somebody in this band’s been listening to Jim Campilongo!). At the end, he abandoned the effect and flew up the fretboard to the highest registers, throwing in a couple of lickety-split, Ravi Shankar-ish licks to seal the deal. The crowd was awestruck. It’s early in the year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this turned out to be the best show of 2008. If the aforementioned Mme. Case, Garniez or Mandell are your cup of tea, or if you love Snorah Jones’ voice but wish the girl would grow up and learn how to write a damn song, don’t miss the chance to get to know Jennifer Niceley.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment