South by Southwest 2019 was the year of dreams coming true for me. Namely, I was blessed to see a grand total of four bands I’d been aching to see for at least a year after hearing of their existence. First, Run River North, who I kept missing because of prior showcase obligations. Second, and today’s topic of fangirling, Say Sue Me.
I missed this band at last year’s SXSW because, well, to not put too fine a point on it, I almost actually died during a show. I say this facetiously often, but that doesn’t make it any less true. (I don’t blame you, Jay Park. I blame the people who didn’t believe in your greatness to stuff you in a shitty venue. But I digress.)
I’d been hearing enthusiastic whispers about Say Sue Me for a couple years. I did get to see them when they made their SXSW debut at the Korea Spotlight last year, but they were the first in a lineup of several other artists Plus my focus was kind of… elsewhere last year.
Then this year, they were nominated in five huge categories at the Korean Music Awards, three of which pit them up against the biggest K-pop acts of the last couple years (namely, BTS). They won two of those awards, and I was even determined to see them perform whenever I got the chance. Oh, South by Southwest, you just keep on gifting me chances.
The first thing you have to know about Cheer Up Charlie’s is it’s more bar than performance space. Par for the course for about 80 percent of the venues during the festival, but CUC’s really sells it. So getting to the front where the tiny stage is can be a bit of a gamble. One that mostly I lose twice because 1) I’m often just not at a venue early enough, and 2) I’m short… really short. But luck favors the brave and those who have tall friends.
Before Say Sue Me’s set begins, I’m dragged over to the corner where the restrooms are, nestled right in the corner of an alcove that just separates anyone standing there from the artist. The perfect spot to hear and see everything up-close-and-personal.
One word: Damn!
Say Sue Me has earned every moment, every nanosecond of their worldwide notoriety. From the first note, the band has an energy that overwhelms the crowd. It’s infectious. You feel as if everything around you is alive.
Choi Su-mi is surprising. She has quite an unassuming nature. You genuinely wouldn’t know she was the leader of an indie rock band if you weren’t familiar with them. She maintains that quiet demeanor as she gets on stage. But it would be a mistake to equate that quietness with a lack of enthusiasm. The woman is an absolute explosion on the guitar. She doesn’t need to make overt gestures on stage to make her point. Her passion comes out in every single sound she coaxes out of her instrument. The sound of her voice behind the mic. All that power and confidence in that tiny body.
Of course, the band is more than just the force of their leader. I was closest to guitarist Kim Byung-kyu. He has the same quiet energy as Su-mi. Just like Su-mi, he saves all his explosiveness for the way he uses his instruments (his voice and his guitar). Standing near him is truly beautiful. There’s nothing ostentatious about him. Nothing overly showy. But he has an undeniable soul that supplies a great counterpoint to Su-mi’s own bit of melodic solitude.
In fact, all the members of Say Sue Me has this sort of quiet intensity. Drummer Kim Chang-won letting his fists and feet give a steady pulse to the band. Byung-kyu and even Su-mi are measured, unassuming on stage but with a musical presence that’s undeniable.
But it’s Ha Jae-young, the bassist, that provides some of the most magical moments on the stage. Watching him is truly a blessing. To see a man wrapped up in his music. Eyes closed. Head back. Every sound seems to affect him a little differently than everybody else in the band. Each one of them is invested in their own way. But Jae-young’s rapture as he plays his instrument as the harmonic play between Su-mi and Byung-kyu washes over all of us, Chang-won’s pulse. It all seems to touch Jae-young on another level.
Say Sue Me has the type of dynamic that makes every performance they do unbelievable. To see the way they play off each other, how the music puts all of them in their own little worlds. Each member lives wholly in the moment. It really was a surprise seeing them this close. I’ve never quite seen that balance of subdued and passionate on stage before. It was an experience that I’ll forever be grateful I was blessed to have.
Photos by Cy