Zandari Festa — Billy Carter @ Veloso

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: Korean women are tough! This is not up for debate. I’m not going to harp on it. If I did that’d be the only thing I’d say about my first Zandari Festa experience. Whatever any of your preconceived notions about the women in the  country are, throw them out the window. They don’t belong here. This truth is painted in stark reality when I make my way back to Veloso to see rock-blues band Billy Carter.

As I make my way up to the stage, nothing during the band’s sound check indicates that I’m going to be completely overwhelmed during their showcase. They warm up, as most bands do, a few notes sung here and there, some tunings to get the precise sound in the space after it”s filled with people. Nothing interesting really clues me in to their performance style. Truth be told, since I’d gone into the show never actually having seen what any of them look like, I wasn’t sure what to expect anyway.

It sure as hell wasn’t what I got, I’ll tell you that much!

I’d already fallen in love with Billy Carter through the series of color-themed EPs they released throughout 2017. Particularly the Orange EP. Their’s is a gritty blues, tinged with the growl and snarl of their lead vocalist (keyboardist and melodica player), Kim Jiwon. It’s genuine, nothing forced or put on for the sake of perpetuating some misinformed ideal of what the blues really is. When you listen to their music, you get the sense that they’ve all lived lives full of heartache and self-made redemption. It’s rough, dirty, yet there’s an elegance to it that ties everything together. It’s heartbreaking music with a smoothed-out surface, raw enough to shock but palatable so you don’t run away.

From note one, Jiwon is on a mission: drive the audience completely mad. She’s a powerhouse. Her range and tone send chills down my spine. The first day of Zandari is the fullest for me, but I’d only seen one other band with a female lead vocal, and her voice while lovely was by no means tough. Jiwon’s is pretty, no mistake about that. But it’s got the kind of diamond hue that comes after being surrounded by the grit of jagged rocks. It’s still rough around the edges, giving her a bite that will either make you fall in love or make you ache for a dirty touch.

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All that, of course, is only heightened by the way she performs. Given that much room to play, she absolutely goes wild and takes everyone in the audience with her. The stage is her jungle. She prowls on it not unlike a tigress, crouching to begin her hunt, then pouncing when she knows she’s got you ensnared. And when she takes off her boots, beware. That just gives her more incentive to fling herself around, whirling about, hair flying behind her like the wind caught hold of it and doesn’t want to let it go. She’s so overwhelmed with the music at one point, she actually falls to her knees, then bends herself backward as the moment washes over her.

One thing that you must understand about these bands, however, is that it’s never, ever about just one person. The band is a unit, a living and breathing entity that needs every limb of its body to function. Jiwon may be the focal point, but you’d be daft to miscount the genius of drummer Lee Hyun-joon and guitarist and harmonica player Kim Jina, Jiwon’s co-captain.

Let me tell you something. Jina is an absolute beast on her guitar. She’s arguably the most subdued of the entire band, not announcing her presence, but damn if you don’t see her! She plays with the furor of someone who’s become one with their instrument. She knows its quirks, its needs and desires. She knows when to ride the melody and when to let herself out of her shell and make that thing weep.

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There were a few moments when she was so immersed in the music she’d spin and kick, taking the guitar with her until she exorcised whatever demon that particular song placed in her body.

And then… Hyun-joon. I don’t know what to say to give this man the credit he deserves, and honestly whatever I could say might just do him a disservice. There was a moment in the show where he was allowed to just play. That’s a dangerous man when you give him the spotlight. He started to just melt the rivets off his drum set.

The audience was absolutely awe-stricken, even more so than when Jiwon was letting her body go. Hitting intricate patterns on that set, Hyun-joon had every single one of us in a trance, his sticking like casting a spell. For my part, I couldn’t help but let loose a church holler because the man simply went insane when he was in his element.

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In fact, his drum work was so damn brilliant, both Jina and Jiwon just turned to him. In that moment every member of Billy Carter was tuned in to one another like nothing else. Jina started wailing away on her ax. Jiwon stalked over, tambourine in hand, and started banging in the cymbals. It was a moment of pure magic in their 40-minute set. It laid the foundation for what was unquestionably the most heart-stopping show of the day.

With the first day of Zandari Festa in the books, I was completely overcome with the emotional weight of it all. If this all happens on the first day, how am I going to survive the rest of the weekend?

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