As I bustled out of the Seoul International Airport headed towards Fake Virgin's Holiday Land Festival, I wasn't altogether sure what to expect. Casting aside that it'd be a number of years since I'd been to any Western festival, Holiday Land was destined to be my very first Korean festival going experience of my four years in the country.

Conditioned from earlier festival reporting days, I was spoiled by the likes of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands...the list goes on into self-involvement. I certainly didn't expect something so grand, if anything, I was grateful that a Korean provider had been able to gather a collection of interesting artists hailing from around the world. Festivals in my time in Asia oft seemed maligned by a bill virtually filled with what is expected from a standard festival: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, you name it.

To be sure, they can hardly be blamed for this. For one thing, beyond the concern of wooing an audience potentially largely unfamiliar with any Western acts beyond the most blatantly famous, one also has to consider the difficulty in attracting smaller acts without a massive name and touring budget.

Nonetheless, here Holiday Land was, gracing us with the likes of Sampha, Thundercat and NAO. Not to mention boasting a closing set from headliners The xx. Here I was, it was time to begin.

For the purposes of our journey here, it's important to note I was lucky enough to be joined with a Korean partner in crime, who was invaluable making sure my helpless, painfully-white self arrived where I was intended to be at all times, and so on. As we dashed to a taxi, it was immediately apparent the musical inclinations of the weekend's attendees had not reached the masses. The driver not only had no idea there was a festival going on but hadn't a clue where in what turned out to be a very large park we should be headed.

I was amused at the idea of a local driver being unaware of Music Midtown in my hometown Atlanta, but eventually we managed to find the right general area and sprinted (a tad late) towards the venue. Much has been made of the superiority of Korean's transportation system, New York's own broken, fatally gasping subway system drawing comparisons to Seoul's own sleek, perfected bastion, and Korean considerations did not fail here, either.

At peak arrival times, we were given our passes, checked through security, and inside the venue within no more than five minutes. Mind you, this was no sneaky press entrance, in fact, no particular amenities were provided in that area, everyone was getting in this quickly. Having sweated through epic lines at Bonnaroo in 2011 before my time as a music writer, I could never imagine Tennessee achieving such efficiency.

I imagine you've had enough blathering. Never fear. Let's get to it.

Day One:

Situated in the notably clean and open Namsum River Valley Park, Holiday Land's relatively modest presentation boasted two stages. The main stage, out in the open and very damn hot, which was graced largely by Western artists, as well as a few Korean bands earlier on in both days, and a smaller stage, mercifully sheltered near shady trees which (from what I gathered in what little time I spent there) had invited local Korean DJs to spin and create a dancing atmosphere for those tired of the heat and crowd of the bigger area.

Making our way to the main stage, we passed a surprisingly excellent spread of food vendors, obligatorily overpriced water, and staff passing out fans and offering free goods from the event's various sponsors. To win the latter one simply needed to beat staff at a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and while it's been a good while since I've been to a Western festival, this fun, non-invasive advertising offered moments of respite rather than annoyance. My co-attendee was certainly pleased to win an eye-shadow set (or something of that nature, I won't pretend to have a shred of understanding).

It was time for the tunes.


Opening the festival were local Seoul rapper/musicians Samuel Seo & Qim Isle, who I was decidedly unfamiliar with, but they put on a fun inaugural bout for the weekend, spewing energetic raps in a mix of Korean and English, pausing to explain the reason for the dual appearance: the two had recently released a collaborative EP, Elbow. They clearly relished the opportunity to open a festival largely comprised of Western acts, and dashed about with energy in hopes to stick in the memories of an audience largely just waiting for Thundercat to arrive.

Korean reaction (dictated, not read): "I'm Korean, and I haven't even heard of them. It's hot out." (No harm intended to the fine artists, whose show I enjoyed just fine.)



Despite being so early on in the bill, Thundercat was one of the shows which I anticipated most eagerly. Having been a fan of his for years, and enjoying his larger success this year with Drunk, it was thrilling to finally see him, let alone for his first show in Korea. Of the places I wouldn't have expected to be, here I was.

The man himself arrived a solid bit earlier than the show began, studiously sound-checking his equipment himself, goofing around for the audience, clearly enjoying the catcalls and shouts he received. “I never thought I'd see Thundercat in Korea,” I remarked to my compatriot. “Me too,” a voice interjected from behind: a very excited Korean man, whom it turned out had bought a day's pass solely to see this show, as had the friend with him. The Korean fanbase was out in force.

When the show finally did begin in earnest, the audience was within the palm of his hand from the first note, an encouraging number of Koreans present seeming to know 'A Fan's Mail' in particular, perhaps simply due to the repeated “meows,” but whatever the reason, a raucous, joyful audience sing-along occurred. Playing 'Lotus and the Jondy', 'Them Changes', among others, Thundercat put on one hell of a show, and the audience resisted the sweltering heat to remain in the groove.

Korean reaction (barely dictated, not read): "He was a great bass player, the jams were cool. It was too hot."

Oh Wonder


Of all the shows for the weekend, Oh Wonder was perhaps the one I least knew what to expect. I had heard their name over the years, casually listening to their debut around its release, but mostly rushed through their discography in preparation for the festival. I enjoyed the debut and found its follow up Ultralife to be pleasant if not demanding of more attention.

This is a story of being wrong. The songs simply came to life played live. The DIY duo were clearly thrilled to be in Korea for their first time (a recurring theme of the weekend), and even more excited by their audience's big reaction to them. It showed in every moment of their playing, each song genuinely bursting with earnest enthusiasm. Josephine Vander Gucht, the charming feminine half of the pair, even felt moved to dedicate 'Ultralife' to the audience, (somewhat cheesily, but sweetly) declaring the lyric, “I've got so much soul in my bones,” felt closer to 'Seoul' on the day of the show, and that they'd treasured their time in the city.

Of all the reactions from the weekend, Oh Wonder's rapturous audience may be the most genuinely entranced I saw the largely Korean audience grow. Song for song, the crowd danced and cheered their hearts out. When Anthony West (the other half) asked the crowd if they'd come out and support them if they came back to Korea, it was the loudest, resounding, “Yes!”, I'd heard in a good long while. It was one for the memory book.

Korean Reaction (Excitedly dictated, read): "This was my favorite from the festival! I only had one of their songs on my phone before the show, but I bought all their stuff after, and it's all I've been listening to! They were too much fun! Sweet, too. They posed for selfies for nearly any Korean fans who asked, I and seemingly half of Korea got our pictures in. I hope they come back to Seoul or Busan!"



I'd been a relative, if not deep, fan of NAO since her February 15 EP burst onto the scene in 2015, and was more than curious about what her show would bring to the table. In truth, I don't think I'd ever seen so much as a picture of her, and when she walked on stage she genuinely glowed. She also expressed excitement for being in Korea for the first time, saying she'd brought her best friend as well, who was in the audience with us and bemoaned (along with everyone) the intense Korean summer heat. Ultimately, it didn't matter. The strongest memory I left her show with was her presence, she genuinely possessed one of those rare stage personalities that just envelop the audience in warmth. As she twirled and danced through an exciting set, including a cover of Justin Timberlake's 'Señorita' (I certainly didn't see that coming), during which she was amused and thrilled by the Korean crowd knowing the older hit's words, the audience was left to bask in her glowing joy.

Day's Ending: At this point, we'd braved six hours of the epic heat, dancing and sweating through the day's joys, but it had caught up with us. My compatriot was ready to go hide under an umbrella, itself under a tree, with a cold water and hand-held fans whirring. If it hasn't been expressed: it was very damn hot. Both of us being largely unfamiliar with Years & Years, and in truth, unimpressed by a listen to their album on the flight, we mostly let the evening's show pass by as passive spectators. In fairness to the artists at hand, they played a perfectly professional set that the more invested members of the audience seemed to devour with glee. For any offended, this may just be an aging thing: I'm pushing thirty and I hear the proverbial “kids” love their tunes. More power to ya!

Day Two

As day two began, we were more wary of spending the full day under the full brunt of the heat, and as the day's openers on the main stage were all seemingly local acts with which we were unfamiliar, we spent our time relaxing and milling about the event. Having been familiar with Neon Bunny as something of an “Indie K-pop” presence, I was interested in her DJ set, so we dropped by, and sat under the trees catching some of her chosen grooves. We laid in wait of the approaching glory.



This was the one I'd been waiting for. Having enjoyed Sampha's presence since his early days with SBTRKT, growing into a minor obsession as he hooked up with Drake and released the Dual EP, I had waited for years for Process, and had not even begun to hope to see him on its subsequent tour. Yet, here he was, in Korea. Damn the heat, I was waiting by the stage as long as it took to get a good vantage point. Sweating for an hour in the sun paid off, we were front row as a long, laborious soundcheck began.

Finally, the band began to emerge, and the crowd veritably shrieked as Sampha himself graced the stage. Not surprisingly, he bypassed the excitable introductions of other performers, launching more or less directly into song. Near me, a small group of foreigners were led by a young woman clearly equally invested as I, and we began to predict the next song he'd play in unison, imagining ourselves to be leading the crowd.

Sampha's powerfully fragile voice lost none of its dominance live, instead becoming all the more piercing and central to his music. Songs such as 'Plastic 100°C' became, inevitably, less produced and more organic in a live setting, allowing for more emoting and playing within its blanket of sound. At times, the band would rest, allowing Sampha to play on his keyboard alone, delving through both 'No One Knows Me (Like the Piano)' and his solo version of 'Too Much' in this manner. These moments were anything but low key, becoming almost centerpieces of a robust show.

That being said, the show wasn't without its genuinely huge musical boasts, as he and his band gathered for crashing drum circle for 'Without', and bringing the show to a roaring close with a truly massive, expanded rendition of 'Blood on Me'. By the end of the latter, I noted audience members, previously unfamiliar with the song, having learned its blistering chorus, emotionally singing along. The song knew no language barrier. You could just feel it.



Truth be told, I simply wasn't as thoroughly familiar with Rhye as many seem to be. I'd spent some time with Woman, but wouldn't be able to put a song title to a song. This made the more low-key nature of their music to take a much-needed respite after the constant sweaty dancing and cheering during Sampha's set, and we collapsed with many others clearly with the same ideas. They put on an affable set, with some unexpected amusement arriving in the form of their violin player breaking a string and having to dash back stage to replace it, leading to front man Milosh to remark, “That's just how hard our violinist rocks out, so...what can we play without them?,” and some random scrambling as they awaited his return. It was a lighthearted, fun set, a perfect end to the summer's day, as the (slightly...) cooler evening air began to sweep in.

The xx


For many, The xx were the defining moment of the festival they'd been waiting for, made immediately clear by majority of the picnic-blanket-and-beer seated crowd actually standing and dashing to form the weekend's largest crowd. We had managed to make ourselves reasonably close to the stage, only to end up behind a young lady who seemed to be experiencing her first music festival. Beyond six sheets to the wind, she berated her companions embarrassment by demanding, “I'm not bothering anyone!,” all the way carrying on a dance that was closer to a suspended fall into everyone around her.

The band was a bit late, hardly unusual at most festivals, but Holiday Land had somehow created an event where artists began either before their scheduled time, or precisely when they were intended to. Pleasantly spoiled, the crowd was growing restless as the time reached fifteen minutes pas their intended start. Were they intentionally creating desire, being perfectionists, or just plain old late?

We'll never be sure, as they arrived they got straight to it, leaving no time for commentary. Launching right into their self-titled debut's 'Intro' followed, naturally, by 'VCR', the audience instantly forgave their tardiness, instead breaking into hysteria. For an album that I'd treasured as a college kid, but hadn't revisited as often in recent years, it was far less subdued than I remembered. Live, these songs played loud, somehow instantaneously gaining an epic nature.

Having completed their grand entrance, Romy served as ambassador the audience, saying it'd been four years since their last time in Seoul, and that they were thrilled to be back. With herself and Oliver taking the foreground, and Jamie set up in his grand DJ perch behind them, they kept the tunes coming, next speeding into material from I See You.

Truthfully, I wasn't that album's biggest fan, it felt a bit too tidy, as if the band were simply taking on Jamie's ideas from his recent solo success, simply expanded into a unit. Live, however, these songs made more sense, with all members able to expand and roughen the songs by turns, breathing them into something far more exciting than the somewhat stagnant studio takes. 'Say Something Loving' and others breathed and ached with the audience. Somewhere during this, the drunken character began cursing out her embattled compatriots for attempting to keep her from dancing into (and over) everyone around her, and they clearly elected she'd be better suited outside of the tightly packed forefront, dragging her cursing and crying away. (We hope you're ok, mystery boozer!)

A highlight, however, came again from their original LP, as 'Infinity' grew into a spiraling anthem, with the call and repeat verses of the two singers leading to a crashing, epic finale. Again, far larger than the album I remembered, and in the best ways possible. Romy took center stage for another memorable moment, as she introduced 'Performance' as her favorite song from the new album, before declaring, “And I'm going to play this one by myself, which is scary.” The audience cheered, and her band mates stepped off into the shadows. Suffice to say, she crushed it, and an elated Oliver planted her with a big kiss, much to the excitement of the audience.

As they returned to ensemble mode, the audience laughed at a hat Oliver had donned: his name, written in Hangul (the Korean alphabet) boasted across its front. “All I really want from an xx show,” he shouted, “Is that whatever problems everyone is having, whatever they're going through, they can leave that at home, and just enjoy themselves for a little while.” It was a sentiment the band clearly genuinely shared, as they poured their all into a sweaty, late hours set up until the very end. I think it'd be fair to say the audience left having shared the feeling.