SXSW Music 2016: My first K-Pop experience and the Japan Nite ritual

Victim Mentality, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

Victim Mentality, SXSW Music 2016 – Austin, Texas

K-Pop or Korean Pop music has become a thing around Asia and even in the U.S. to some extent. I had my first experience this year at SXSW. It was interesting to compare it to Japan Nite, which I’ve attended for a number of years. Though they both originate in Asia, the two were quite different. Granted one visit to a concert hardly makes me an expert but it’s fun to compare the two events.

K-Pop Night Out, only in its 4th year, was up first on Wednesday. It was held at The Belmont, a nice predominantly outdoor venue on the west side. The line was long and it took me an hour to get in, a consequence of not having a SXSW badge. No problem, I wasn’t about to spend the big bucks for a badge, just for a couple of concerts.

Despite the K-Pop label, it encompasses a number of genres. The metal band “Victim Mentality” was up as I finally got in, as you can see above. The great thing about this stuff is, despite not knowing a lick of Korean, I probably understood them as much as any English-speaking metal band. People bob their heads as they are prone to do and I heard the occasional high pitch wailing like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

Love X Stereo, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

Next up, “Love X Stereo”, classified by SXSW as “Electronic” music. Most everything on this blog circles back to photography, and honestly, that’s what I’m most interested in, even at concerts. Sure, I like the atmosphere, the excitement and sometimes the music, but above all, I want to create a great image. Something that captures the mood. As I continue to hone my photography, that’s what I’m trying to do these days.

I really like the image above. The colors, the back lighting and the energy. I get excited when they start to activate the stage lights, and as they point towards me, I start shooting like crazy. The Belmont stage was hard to photograph. The pretty glowing LCD display behind the stage, while great for animated graphics, wreaked havoc on exposures. Try setting accurate exposures when you have constantly changing strobing patterns to contend with.

Mamamoo, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas
Mamamoo, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

One of the big draws of the night was Mamamoo, a quartet of R&B singers. Their popularity is understandable. Cute singers with catchy tunes who could actually sing quite well. As soon as they hit the stage, a mass of smartphone screens blanketed the view. I usually try to minimize my impact, shooting quickly and lowering my camera and I rarely take videos. As you can guess, these smartphone shooters were going for the video. No worries, I just embraced it and felt less guilty about raising my camera.

My camera and lens choice worked well. No surprise that I was using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, currently my most used camera. The tilting screen worked great that night. I raised my camera high above to get these kind of shots. Unusually, I used the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens, a handy but bigger lens. I often shoot with smaller prime lenses but I took a chance and was hoping for some added versatility. Truth is, I bought my 25mm f1.4 as a backup, just in case, but never used it for the concerts.

The two pictures show the range, 12mm for the first photo and 40mm for the next. Even at 10 rows back, it gave me enough flexibility. I couldn’t be happier with its performance.

I didn’t stay for the entire show, I called it quits towards midnight.

Jungles, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas
Jungles, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

Quite different from the K-Pop experience was the Japan Nite preview show on Thursday. The day before the main event, the Japan Nite organizers put on an afternoon preview show. I went for second half of the event, hoping to catch my favorite group, Kao=S, which ended up stuck at the airport. Something about visa issues. I shot Jungles, a popular all girl rock band, instead.

Valhalla is a grungy hole in the wall on the east side on Red River, surrounded by other like establishments. The stage was tiny, the lighting, marginal and it turned out to be great. When you’re 5 feet away from an intense performance, you can’t help but soak it in. I shot these at 12mm and up close to emphasize the distortion. I used the 12-40mm again to good effect.

REATMO, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

This guy is a Japanese beatboxer enhanced with electronics. The crowds for this preview show were thin but there’s something authentic about it. It feels like the old SXSW when unknown artists, trying to make a name for themselves, played to anyone that would listen. Originally SXSW was a place where the small guys hoped to make it big by securing a record deal. In the age of electronic downloads, the notion is as quaint as low priced SXSW badges.

Japan Nite is the old-timer, compared to K-Pop. The’ve been around 20 years and have introduced over 100 bands. Some bands are very weird indeed but they seem to be more of a showcase for the different. It’s less Pop focused.

Yoshiki, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

As for the main Japan Nite on Friday, it started out slow. Three of the bands, for some reason, got stuck in immigration and couldn’t make it. The organizers scrambled to fill the spots and started an hour later than originally planned. Their coup was to secure Yoshiki for a mini two song performance. An hour earlier he played for an upscale crowd at The Paramount Theater after a screening of his documentary. He’s apparently a big deal in Japan. The kind of person that almost anyone in Japan will know. Imagine my surprise when I was in the front row, shooting him in Austin, Texas.

I guess that’s the great thing about Austin. Despite the city getting bigger and SXSW going main stream, there’s always surprises.

Lights, SXSW Music 2016 - Austin, Texas

I’ll close with another black lit light shot. A scene that looks like the finale from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I shot this at the K-Pop concert but feel free to insert any band here. It’s a proxy for the music scene in Austin. One that I don’t visit very often but fun to shoot nevertheless.

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