It can be easy, especially through the self-constructed echo chambers that characterise today’s social media, for K-pop fans to miss out on the big-name Korean acts that have helped shape and lead their industry. Epik High is not one of those acts, as they proved at their first-ever Melbourne concert last week.
In the sixteen years since they released their first album, Mapping the Human Soul, Tablo, Mithra Jin and DJ Tukutz have become a mainstay in mainstream Korean music and the local zeitgeist. Their status, along with idol associations with Infinite and the YG stable, has made them familiar to K-pop fans far and wide, many of whom joined others in building Epik High’s international fanbase, known in Korea and beyond as High Skool.
With a new EP and under new management (WME globally, themselves locally) following their 2018 departure from YGE, the trio have been making the most of the opportunity to visit more High Skools. Having completed their first Europe tour, Epik High turned their sights to Australia. Of their two shows, the Melbourne one sold out within hours — not surprising since the venue, 170 Russell, had a capacity of just over 1000, a third of the capacity of Big Top Sydney.
Having snagged a ticket just in time, I turned up on the 18th of July to long lines that snaked up and down the Chinatown alley next to the venue. Though one of the last to enter, my good fortune continued as venue staff allowed Gold and Silver ticket holders (I was among the latter) to enter the VIP section on the dance floor. My luck did finally run out when I ended up behind a wall of taller fans; but that, along with the one-hour delay, did very little to dampen my excitement — the many water bottles the members doused us with took up that task instead.
Any inconveniences experienced beforehand felt well worth it once Epik High finally took the stage. The only flashy element of the show was the vivid imagery accompanying the music on a LED screen. Wholly unexpected and very much welcome was the lush rainbow of colour seen in the images — such visual highlights included “BURJ KHALIFA” (Shoebox) and “High Technology” ([e]).
Fifteen years of material is hard to pack into a 90-minute show, and though newer material like “In Seoul,” “Eternal Sunshine,” (Sleepless in _________) and “No Thanxxx” (We’ve Done Something Wonderful) highlighted Epik High’s continued excellence, the trio also revisited their earlier work with “One” (Pieces, Part One), “Love Love Love” (Remapping the Human Soul) and “Fan,” which Epik High transformed from a creepy ode to a heartfelt thank you to the audience, choreographed running and all.
As much as I enjoy Epik High’s more, er, high energy fare that had us jumping and screaming, Sleepless in Melbourne also allowed concert-goers to enjoy the group’s signature mellow sound live. This also led to a hilarious moment when, in the lead up to introducing more up-tempo fare, Tablo referred to how the last three songs were slower. He only got as far as referring to “the last three songs” before fans began their lament. Eventually, Tablo figured out the source of confusion and explained that he had been referring to the previous three songs instead of the final three songs as we in the audience had initially feared.
That confusion also became the only moment we saw Tablo truly stymied. Otherwise, the Epik High leader was the biggest goddamn troll; he did everything from “interpreting” DJ Tukutz’s usual deadpan expression as the height of emotion (“this is the happiest I’ve ever seen him”), to dramatically recalling how he rescued Mithra Jin from the snow like he was some abandoned baby (instead of the married adult he is), to insisting there would be no encore (there was an encore).
Tablo’s playfulness was infectious: DJ Tukutz amused us all with his B-boy skills, while Mithra Jin brought the adorable when he wasn’t being embarrassed by Tablo or killing me slowly with his smirking. Where they truly shone, though, was in how they commanded the audience. Throughout the performance and copious amounts of fanservice, they knew when to get us to jump, when to make us scream, and when to point the mic at us. During Big Bang‘s MADE concert in Melbourne, Taeyang struggled to get the crowd to sing along with the Korean lyrics. Epik High neatly side-stepped that problem by sticking to English lyrics and more screaming, which kept energy levels up.
Epik High also know how to use a stage; they were constantly moving to ensure they were spread out — it was actually quite comical seeing Tukutz and Tablo constantly switching positions between stage centre and stage left, accommodating Mithra anytime he moved from stage right. Tablo scaled the DJ booth a few times, though I think that was an overlap of both his hyper nature and the need to occupy more space. At the top of the show, Tablo mentioned getting a bigger stage the next time they came to Melbourne; and while popular K-pop venue 170 Russell gave us greater intimacy, it would be amazing to see Epik High light up a larger space in person.
Ultimately, there seems to have been an underestimation somewhere regarding the level of interest in a Melbourne Epik High concert — a misconception that has been well and truly dispelled thanks to all the fans who braved the Melbourne winter to support Epik High.
Even after mentioning points for improvement, I don’t think I would change a single thing; I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Sleepless in Melbourne and would jump at the chance to see Epik High live again. Here’s to hoping they make good on their promise and return soon!