A Whale of a New York Debut by Stunningly Individualistic Korean Art-Folk Band Coreyah

by delarue

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, psychedelic Korean art-folk band Coreyah were three elegantly shapeshifting rainy-day songs into their New York debut when Halee Jeong launched into an ominous, misterioso,, tone-warping intro on her geomungo lute – a large, low-register instrument played with a stick – with an unhinged savagery. Overtones and wildly bent notes flew from the strings, to the point that it looked like she was going to break the thing. Was this a sign of things to come? Absolutely. By the end of about an hour onstage, people were dancing in the aisles and calling the band back for an encore with a series of standing ovations.

Bands whose sound is defined by epic grandeur tend to be on the serious side, and Coreyah have plenty of gravitas. But they’re also hilarious. Early in the set, multi-flutist Dong-Kun Kim opened a song with a coyly spaced birdsong riff, echoed on the song’s playful chorus with chirpy charm and matching hand signals by frontwoman Ashin Kweon. Later on, multi-percussionist Cho-Rong Kim switched places with drummer Kyungyi and machinegunned through an endlessly droll series of woodblock hits balanced on the low end by a relentless “whoomp whoomp” as the flute player led the group through the call-and-response of a completely over-the-top rap. And throughout the show, Kyungyi’s deadpan sense of humor kept the audience chuckling. Essentially, his message was “If you don’t like what you hear, just chill: we’ll eventually get to something that’s up your alley. We have mad flavors.” He wasn’t kidding.

They followed that crazy rap with the night’s gentlest song, guitarist Samgheum Park bringing to mind a similarly polystylistic Asian-born player, Rez Abbasi, with a pensively exploratory blend of judicious jangle, jazz erudition and unleashed skronk. The band’s sound would have been even more epic had he been given an amp, rather than running through his stompboxes, directly into the PA.

Kweon is a force of nature, a sometimes terrifyingly brilliant singer. She majored in pansori as an undergraduate, but the concert’s program notes made more than clear that she refuses to be identified by any one style of music. She induced plenty of goosebumps with her shivery melismatics on the set’s dramatic closing ballad, but she also aired out her mighty low register on a broodingly vampy, propulsive, distantly Arabic-tinged anthem, shades of Grace Slick. And while she sang exclusively in Korean, Kweon transcends the limits of language. The plaintiveness and anguish she channeled, reaching to the stratospheric heights of what seemed like a four-octava range during the night’s darkest and most intensely crescendoing anthem, was impossible to turn away from. But her wistfulness early in the set, as well as her wry good cheer as the night went on, came across just as evocatively.

Beyond the musicians’ sizzling chops, what’s most inteesting about this band is how subtly they weave classic Korean folk themes into a rock framework. The use of geomungo instead of bass resulted in more interplay and tradeoffs that most rock bands have between bassist and guitarists. And the twin-percussion team seamlessly blended rhythms as diverse as bossa nova and qawwali into the mix. They ended the night with a big singalong anthem: it helps if you speak Korean, because that way you get all of their jokes, but this indelibly New York, multicultural crowd found themselves drawn into the music all the same.

Fun fact: depending on how you transliterate it, Coreyah is Korean for either “inheritance” or “whale.” The group consider that mighty, endangered cetacean to be their spirit animal.

Flushing Town Hall is sort of the Joe’s Pub of Queens…but infinitely better. Tickets are cheaper, there’s no annoying drink minimum and booking is even more adventurous. This Sunday there’s a Diwali festival with Indian music and dance to celebrate the holiday; the next cnncert with global reach cheduled here after that is dazzlingly eclectic string quartet Brooklyn Rider on Dec 2 at 7:30 PM; tix are $25/$15 stud/srs.

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