Festival Frolics, pt 1

Korea’s increasingly crowded festival season kicked off this weekend with the granddaddy of them all, Pentaport.

With Jisan taking place next week — and with the prospect of two festivals in two consecutive weekends not as appealing as it would have been a few years ago — I hadn’t originally planned on going to Pentaport this year. But when I found out that LCD Soundsystem were on the bill on Saturday, my resolve gradually weakened until all it took was a gentle prod from a friend to convince me to go. In the end, a nebulous group of between three and six of us were there, with a bunch of other people I knew in attendance as well.

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A distant shot of Guckkasten, a decent Korean indie band.
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The kids
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Fine dining, festival style
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The mighty Koxx

This was the fourth Pentaport I’ve been to, and the first since the rift between the event’s former joint promoters. As music fans here will probably know, Yellow9 split off from Yescom last year and promptly scheduled a new event, the Jisan Valley Rock Festival, for the same weekend as Pentaport. Because Yellow9 seemingly enjoy closer connections with Fuji Rock — the Japanese festival that runs on the same weekend and that Pentaport used to share bands and singers with — they were able to lure the more famous acts to Jisan last year, leaving Pentaport with a weaker lineup. With Jisan again occupying the Fuji weekend, Pentaport this year decided to run on the weekend before and in a new venue, a big field in Incheon called Dreampark.

Though I had some fantastic (if rather hazy) memories of the old Pentaport site in Songdo, I have to say the new place is an improvement. Open, grassy and reasonably scenic, it is definitely more pleasant overall and hadn’t, despite heavy rainfall on the Friday morning, been churned up into a mud bath. The forecast thunderstorms failed to materialise too, and we were blessed with marvellous sunny weather.

On the downside, not having access to Fuji’s roster of artists is clearly hurting Pentaport. Though LCD Soundsystem are one of my favourite bands and currently at the top of their game, there were no acts strong enough to compel me to visit on the Friday or Sunday. Ian Brown, who was headlining on Sunday, would have had a certain nostalgia value, but I’d be hard pushed to think of two less inspiring bands than Friday and Saturday’s big names, Stereophonics and Hoobastank. Sadly, this was also reflected in crowds that were a good bit smaller than in Pentaport’s glory days a few years ago.

As always happens at rock festivals here, though, we did also come across one or two great Korean bands we’d never heard of. Of those, the unfortunately named The Koxx (above) – think a Korean version of Franz Ferdinand with added synths – were the best. Then, of course, there was LCD Soundsystem.

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The brilliant James Murphy in a heartfelt moment.
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'Ave it!
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The band

Though not to everyone’s taste — one of my friends found them a little disappointing — I thought they were fantastic live. Better still, they ticked pretty much every box for my favourite tracks: All My Friends, Losing My Edge, Tribulations and the uproarious Yeah. Fuelled by beer, tequila and Jager Bombs (bleurch), we let rip with plenty of whooping and preposterous dance moves, as did the amassed crowds, which swelled noticeably when LCD Soundsystem came on. As is invariably the case at big gigs here, the atmosphere was tremendous and extremely good natured. One of my friends, himself of Korean descent, said he’d had no idea that Korean music fans could tear it up like that, nor that such a fan base even existed for this kind of music. With TV here saturated with squeaky, ditzy, cosmetically altered K-pop stars, it’s easy to think that concerts in Korea are the sole preserve of excitable teens chanting their idols’ names and waving oversized blue light sticks (see here for the full horror). But as with much else here, the good stuff really does exist if you’re prepared to search it out.

As for Pentaport itself, though it’s been a little sad to see its difficulties, I think the decoupling from Yellow9 might not eventually be as disastrous as it would have been even a few years ago. Though it used to be big news even when the likes of Toto came to town, the live music scene in Korea has improved so much in the past few years that it’s now possible to run a whole series of festivals with some genuinely big names. Korea, it seems, is becoming more of a stop-off in its own right and not just an afterthought for performers going to Japan, which is obviously good news for Pentaport and others. For the time being, however, Jisan is undoubtedly the king of a fast-growing heap. And more on that when I eventually recover from the three days I’m spending there next weekend…

UPDATE: Well that’ll teach me to try and guess crowd numbers. According to online sources, 50,000 people showed up over the weekend with 27,000 on Saturday alone. The reason it looked quieter, apparently, is that the site is so much bigger than the old place. I’m delighted to hear it, but I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere near that number…

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