Live Review: KCON New York 2017 M! Countdown Day 1 – Prudential Center (23.06.17)

After a tiring day in the muggy heat of Newark delighting in the best that Korean culture has to offer, fans finally got a chance to take their seat or their spot in the pit to catch M Countdown in their very own city. Kevin Woo had the honour of introing the concerts of the third KCON NY, taking place once again in the home of the New Jersey Devils, Prudential Center. The former U-Kiss member spoke with organizers of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and moderated a fan dance battle, before finally setting the stage for the night’s performers.

The openers were KNK, a group who seemed to have something to prove despite their clearly visible dedicated fanbase. In hindsight they were a particularly interesting opening act, given their self-confessed influence from this night’s headliners Highlight (or more so B2ST). It provided the night with a cohesiveness, a sense that KCON can show us the past and present of K-pop in a matter of mere hours.

They came out with most recent single “Sun, Moon, Star.” It’s a song that is elevated so much by being performed live. On record it is an altogether more tender song, the signature synths seem to flow slower. With the members at the top of their game though, it becomes tragic. Lead vocalist Youjin was not just KNK’s best vocalist but the best of the whole weekend. His climactic ad lib stunned the crowd and the song felt as epic and as important as the cosmic visuals behind them.

Youjin and the rest of the group continued their form with debut track “Knock” and their last track “Day N Night”. The last was a great choice as it moved the tone of the concert from something potentially too serious to a lot of fun. They abandoned choreography in favour of interacting with the fans and bouncing along to the infectious synth pop. Since fellow exuberant rookies SF9 were following them, this proved to be perfectly pitched.

The move towards the hilarious antics of SF9 was not immediate though. In what would become a theme of both nights, first there was a cover of a Broadway show song. Yuju of GFriend and Dongwoon of Highlight combined to perform “Beauty and The Beast” and naturally there was nothing beastly in sight (unless it was supposed to be a pun on B2ST). They made a gorgeous pair and their vocals married really well. It seemed effortless even as Dongwoon continued pushing himself with ad libs. Surprisingly Yuju didn’t get too much time to really show off but she was pristine as ever.

Without warning, SF9 came up out of the floor to bring us their latest track “Easy Love.” The moody track is the type of dance ballad that K-pop does the best and certainly suited to big emotive settings like this. Right after though they played some games with the fans. They were the most endearing of the whole weekend, making jokes and trying hard to impress everyone with their English.

If KNK were the vocal kings of the night, SF9 were no doubt the dancing kings. They moved on to “Roar” and put their dancing skills on display. That song moves the boys around in groups of three with one member tailing off by themselves for their parts. This system allows them to use the whole space of the stage with ever feeling too crowded. It also gives momentum to the parts when they all come together. Along with debut single “Fanfare” SF9 gave a great lesson in how K-pop groups manage big amounts of people on a stage.

The lonesome females of the night, GFriend minus Yerin, carried on the dancing torch as they followed with their own impressive dance break to start their part of the show. It was so uplifting to hear the crowd react well to their other breaks as well, girl groups are more than capable of holding their own they just need more support and slots like this. GFriend opened with their two most recent singles “Fingertip” and “Navillera.” The disco beats of “Fingertip” and propulsive synths of “Navillera” kept the energy high, the girls rode that feeling with impressive gusto. It would have been even better and more of a show for female idols if they had sang live a bit more. It’s understandable though, given the intensity of their dancing,.

They then moved onto “Me Gustas Tu” and ended with their best song “Rough.” “Rough,” similar to “Easy Love” works so well because it combines intense emotions with strong dancing. It gives the crowd an experience that contains multitudes, best of all it can be a serious song but still let us dance along.

The smoothest operator of the night, Zion.T popped up next. Talking to people before the show, there seemed to be a consensus that he didn’t really fit into the billing. It makes sense given he was the only non-idol performer but he quickly dispelled any notion that he didn’t fit there.

Zion.T’s presence is a very relaxed one, he looks utterly at home even on such a big stage all by himself. A slight push of his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, a quick change in gaze that seems to come through the lenses, each of his gestures felt calculated to shift the tension of the audience. They were there for him too though, songs like “Complex” and “Eat” went down well as he eased himself into his set. It wasn’t until his closer that he really took off though. “Yanghwa BRDG” got a big roar from everyone. As the song progressed he teased the mic, pulling it away sharply as the emotions grew. Finally right towards the end as the crowd were singing every word of the song, Zion.T let out a big grin, flashing for the first time on stage the braces on his teeth. It felt almost like a reward for the crowd’s love of his music.

SF9 wasted no time once again and came back to transition into the headline act with a special stage of their own. They performed recent boy band classics “Call Me Baby” by EXO and “Boy in Luv” by BTS to the delight of the clearly multi-fandom fans.

Headliners Highlight were probably glad to see the fans were not picky with who they liked as well. Maybe it was just me but I had a slight worry that Highlight’s fanbase wasn’t what it once was and that the predominantly young fans had moved onto groups like those two just mentioned. My fears were not immediately dissipated though as they started with their two singles as Highlight “Plz Don’t be Sad” and “Calling You.” “Plz Don’t Be Sad” was a lot of fun but “Calling You” is a fairly minor song, it felt out of place in a headliner’s set. After some talk they went straight into “Yey” and I remembered just how great a group they were.

“Yey” is one of my favourites of theirs (and their most underrated) so it was a big wake up call. From their they crushed their way through a blistering set of “Good Luck” and “Beautiful Night.” Sweat was dripping from their mics but they fought through to perform the most fun tracks of the night. Vocally as well they brought it, each of them has grown over the eight years of their long career. Hearing them go for it live was an absolute pleasure, especially Yoseob and Kikwang trading ad libs in the climax. There cannot be a better set closer than “Beautiful Night” either. The most experienced rookies in K-pop have certainly still got it.

The first night of KCON 2017 spoiled us with classics, newbies, and surprises. Each group for the most part showed us the best of their capabilities despite the fatigue they were likely all sporting after a long flight. One would hardly notice it given the energy of the building. Day two had a lot to live up to.