Epik High Defy Conventions, Electrify Audiences in New York: Live Review

Epik High
Courtesy of YG Entertainment

By the standards of most K-pop concerts, Epik High shouldn't be playing to an earsplitting, sold-out crowd. The trio's last album was made up of emo hip-hop cuts, they don't perform choreography, there's no flashy stage setup, two members are married with kids, and a scandal at home almost rocked them to the point of breaking up a few years back. But there they were, playing a filled venue at New York's Best Buy Theater.

Epik High opened their show with "Encore" -- the intro off last year's No. 1 album Shoebox -- with Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz all standing alongside one another at Tukutz's DJ booth. It was a tame opening with the energy soon exploding as EH rappers Tablo and Mithra jumped from the booth to get in fans' faces and bounce around the stage for a medley of songs that included a snippet of Jay Z's "Empire of State of Mind" that went over great with the East Coast crowd. 

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"New York, are you ready for the three men from Korea?" the Canada-raised Tablo asked the crowd in a rather un-sexy way. This type of dry humor heavily seasoned the show, making Epik High not only musically entertaining, but comically too. Like when Tablo introduced himself as "the smallest only in height" or made his dislike of a Q&A segment inherently clear ("Doing things unrelated to our discography, careers or music...maybe that's a good definition K-pop"), the self-aware commentary made for that much more of a compelling show and likely connected better with the U.S. audience. But there were of course low-hanging, fan-engaging fruits -- like Tukutz dancing to G-Dragon and Taeyang's "Good Boy" -- that played to typical K-pop concert fodder.

But that's not to say Tablo & Co. didn't take the show seriously -- hardly. Even when venue-rattling beats threatened to drown out the guys (like on standouts including techno-inspired cuts "High Technology" and "Kill This Love," or the swaggering performances of "Burj Khalifa" and "Up"), the guys were visibly pushing themselves, refusing to miss a beat. Later, Tablo took the stage solo for a charged performance of "Eyes, Nose, Lips," proving they could easily hypnotize the audience with a ballad too.

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There were a few dozen water bottles and towels brought onstage for the guys, but mostly they'd take a sip or two and spray the crowd; or when they'd come from backstage with a towel, they'd wipe their brow and throw it into the audience. It felt like fans concertgoers were always involved in the show with Epik High taking audience members' phones for selfies or jumping down to the pit to greet them several times.

"If there's anything we can do for you, we hope we can be living proof that it gets better," Tablo told the crowd before they moved into the appropriately timed performance of "Fan" (that included the accompanying choreography -- a treat for longtime supporters) ahead of the encore of "Born Hater" and "Don't Hate Me." While Epik High barely checks off the boxes most fans look to with their K-pop concerts, the trio's 2015 North American Tour positions them as a self-aware and more-human alternative to the usual fanfare that comes with Korean pop concerts -- an important (and evidently very well-received) position to fill for American audiences.