Highlights of my time in Korea have often had a touch of the bizarre about them. Being part of an impromptu, 10,000-strong street party that stopped the traffic on Gangnam-gu, right after Ahn Jung-hwan had scored the goal that sank Italy in the 2002 World Cup, was chaotic but disarmingly friendly. Standing atop the snow-covered peaks of Mount Hallasan on Jeju Island in March while the rest of “Korea’s Hawaii” was dry and bathed in sun was fantastic, yet somewhat disconcerting. Likewise, going to Jisan Valley Rock Festival and seeing Korean fans in tears to the Pet Shop Boys and Belle and Sebastian was tremendous, but not the kind of response I’d ever have imagined Koreans lavishing on middle-aged British pop stars.
Unlike last year when we went to Jisan for the Saturday and Sunday, this year, with what was – along with Pentaport in 2006 – the strongest overall lineup yet at a Korean rock festival, I took the Friday off work and headed down there for the whole three-day shebang.
DAY 1: After a protracted journey, involving two subways and a local bus, I finally got to Jisan at around 4.30, just in time to see Martina Topley-Bird. Though I’d never heard anything she’d done apart from her work on Maxinquaye, Tricky’s album from 1995, I was quite taken with her oddball charm, and she soon had the smallish crowd dancing along as best they could to her stripped-back, trip-hoppish tunes.
As her set drew to a close, we joined one of the mass between-band exoduses that was to mark the whole weekend and headed over to the main stage for the surprise hit of the festival. From the time they started in the mid-90s I’ve always been vaguely aware of Belle and Sebastian, but I invariably found their music to be mannered and forgettable. And so it sounded as I turned the corner to see them there on the main stage, plucking their guitars and cellos and shuffling gently as Stuart Murdoch crooned into his mic.
But then, over the course of the next hour or so, the strangest thing happened.
I’d heard that Belle and Sebastian enjoy a cultish following in Korea – indeed, the girl sat next to me on the bus said she was only going to Jisan, her first ever festival, to see them. But before long, it became patently clear just how deep this affection runs. To tunes that only struck a distant chord with me, hordes of Korean indie kids danced euphorically, singing along to every single, presumably poorly understood, word. Stuart Murdoch reciprocated with sentences of endearingly poor Korean and an invitation for a bunch of fans to come up on stage and dance, which they did with goofy abandon. On two or three occasions, the side-stage screens showed close-ups of a young girl in the front row, who was so overcome with emotion, her attempts to dance and sing were constantly interrupted with floods of tears. Cheesy as it sounds, seeing 20-something Koreans so affected by introspective indie pop from a bunch of 40-something Glaswegians almost had me welling up, too.
After that rousing performance, Diane Birch, unsurprisingly, seemed kind of dull (thought it’s pretty hard for female singer songwriters to stand out from their throngs of peers these days). Next up, Vampire Weekend gave a strong, highly charged performance that had the crowd pogoing along. It was great to hear the standards from the first album – Oxford Comma, I Stand Corrected and Walcott all sounded superb live – but despite their energy and excitable chat, it still seemed a bit of an anticlimax compared to the big love-in of the Belle and Sebastian show.
Much was expected of headliners Massive Attack, but despite an inventive and sometimes exhilarating light show, they fell surprisingly flat. Call me an old grouch, but if you’re sitting on one of the best back catalogues of the ’90s and you’re doing your first ever show in a new country, you HAVE to play the classics. Granted, I’m not too familiar with their more recent stuff (ie, anything after Mezzanine), but no Unfinished Sympathy, Protection or Karmacoma and only a tinkly remix of Teardrops?? For shame.
DAY 2: The day began in unspectacular fashion with Mate (poor), Vanilla Unity (noisy) and Matzka (meh) before finally picking up with the superb Kingston Rudieska, a Korean ska band. Exceptional musicians led by a hyperactive frontman with a nice line in patois, Kingston Rudieska were truly infectious, stoking an enthusiastic response despite the searing afternoon temperatures.
The day continued to tick along until festival favourites Jang Kiha and the Faces took to the stage a little before 6. Though their music can be a bit arch for some tastes, their enormously charismatic frontman, Jang Kiha, struck the best rapport with the crowd of any band over the weekend. His dry, between-song schtick drew big laughs from much of the crowd, and he gleefully exploited his big, festival-friendly choruses to get everyone singing along and throwing their hands around.
Rounding off the night were the Pet Shop Boys, who I’d expected to be perhaps the highlight of the weekend. And unlike Massive Attack, they delivered in spectacular fashion. To a stage decorated with two vast, draft-board light decorations, they marched out to an already frenzied crowd and began with a rousing rendition of Heart, a song I’d never really rated before but which is now, after that performance, one of my favourites. From then on, it was a procession of greatest hits – It’s a Sin, Suburbia, West End Girls, Go West, Love Etc, What Have I Done To Deserve This? – all against the backdrop of balletic dance shows and Pink Floyd-esque wall blocks that were variously built up, thrown around and sent crashing to the stage. And when they played Being Boring and Jealousy in their encore, they apparently, according to one of my friends, had a couple of grown Korean guys reduced to tears. Absolutely blinding.
DAY 3: On what was probably the weakest overall of the three days, a bunch of Korean bands came and went – Galaxy Express (OK), Schizo (fast and loud), Im Joo-yeon (totally anonymous) – before things picked up a bit with Japanese rockers The Hiatus. With one of the most powerful openings of the weekend, the lead singer tore through a track called The Ivy, demonstrating both a fearsome set of pipes and a serious admiration for that night’s headliners, Muse. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to maintain that pace, and the set declined into energetic, but largely forgettable power rock.
Also suffering from “unmatched opening syndrome” was Toe, who began with a blistering acoustic track before giving up on vocals and going all jazz odyssey. Third Eye Blind were predictably bland, and had embarrassingly bad chat to boot (“We were told that [where are we today?] Korea had the best crowds in the world, and it’s TRUE! You guys ROCK!”). Corinne Bailey Rae was very pleasant, and seemed like a lovely woman too. And Kula Shaker, who I’ve now seen twice in Korea, gave a decent enough reprise of their Britpop glory days.
I was a bit exhausted by the time Muse came on, and this is now the third time I’ve seen them, but they are an undeniably powerful act live. Uprising – a stomping, paranoid call to arms – was a great choice for the opening song, and Matt Bellamy’s guitar playing was as virtuosic as ever. I’m still a big fan of Muse, if not quite as much as after Black Holes and Revelations, but I think I’d have got more out of their show if they’d been headlining on Friday.
THE GOOD: Overall, this was an excellent event: great line-up of major bands, fantastic location in a mountainous, wooded valley, well organized with plentiful and reasonably priced food and drink. The addition of a massive pool, especially given the brutal heat of Saturday and Sunday, was inspired, and the atmosphere was dependably excellent.
THE BAD: Extending the size of the site, thereby stretching the walk between the two main stages, really didn’t work. If, as seems to be the case, the purpose was to provide room for the dance area to run all day, it was a mistake, as that area remained deserted throughout the three daytimes. Technical hitches blighted a few shows (though they did shorten the set by Mate, so it wasn’t all bad news). And the Korean bands were a little flat this year, though there were several I didn’t see who I heard put on a good show (The Koxx, 3rd Line Butterfly).