By Valerie Soe. Posted November 30, 2022.
Last month I made a relatively snap decision to attend two CNBLUE concerts at Nippon Budokan Arena in Tokyo. I was at one of CNBLUE’s final concerts before their military enlistment, back in 2017 in Taipei, which was also right before I started my treatment for breast cancer. And the very first time I saw CNBLUE back in 2016, was at Budokan. So attending these shows was very meaningful to me.
I first heard of Nippon Budokan back in high school through the album Cheap Trick At Budokan (1979), and in my personal history there’s a direct lineage from Cheap Trick to CNBLUE. Like millions of other youth at the time I owned CTAB and I caught Cheap Trick’s energetic and entertaining live show at least once, most likely with Peter Frampton, Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, or some other arena rock legends. So it makes perfect sense that thirty-some years after Cheap Trick At Budokan rocked my world, I flew to Tokyo to see CNBLUE, another great pop-rock band, at Budokan, the legendary live venue where the Beatles and literally hundreds of other famous acts including Bob Dylan, Queen, Lauryn Hill, X Japan, Hikaru Utada, Mariah Carey, and many, many others have performed.
Back in 2009, FNC Entertainment in South Korea was looking to follow up the success of their first Kpop rock band, FT Island, with a new group. Famously, of the dozens of young hopefuls who tried out one day, only three made the cut, and those three, Jung Yonghwa, Kang Minhyuk, and Lee Jonghyun, became the core of CNBLUE, with bassist Lee Jungshin joining later. Their very first release in 2010, I’m A Loner, was an instant hit and since then CNBLUE has been one of the most popular (if not the most popular) Kpop rock band in history, racking up dozens of awards on music shows, scoring a string of chart-topping singles, selling millions of albums, and becoming the first Korean rock band to have a world tour, back in 2013-14. Along the way they’ve also become one of the best live acts in the world, led by the indomitable energy of leader, composer, singer and rhythm guitarist Yonghwa. By 2017 they seemed unstoppable, but a couple manufactured controversies in the South Korean press, the members’ mandatory two-year military enlistment starting in 2018, and the involvement of lead guitarist Jonghyun in the Burning Sun scandal which eventually led to Lee’s departure from the band in 2019, slowed their roll considerably. The COVID-19 pandemic also prevented live shows for two years, so CNBLUE’s last full concert took place way back in 2017. So these shows at Budokan were the first since then and have been eagerly anticipated by fans wondering about the band’s reconfiguration after these tumultuous past five years.
CNBLUE’s live shows are nothing if not reliable and their concerts are always a pleasure to attend. But this is not to say that their shows are predictable—quite the contrary. Yonghwa makes sure to bring a bit of surprise to every show, and even with the same setlist the band is constantly improvising over and updating the various arrangements of their songs. CNBLUE’s got so many bullets in their arsenal at this point that they can mix and match songs at will to determine the mood they want to convey. As their first time back as a live performing unit since a major personnel shift they were clearly going for a high-energy rock show at Budokan, so the setlist was almost all upbeat, with ballads and angsty songs notably absent.
The first night’s concert was the shakedown cruise and overall the band sounded great, despite their five-year hiatus from the stage. They wasted no time out of the gate, jumping right into several of their most rocking tunes including Lady, Have A Good Night, and Cinderella. The three members were supported by two additional guitarists and a keyboard player, and these experienced session players helped fill out the sound considerably. There were some rough parts in the technical presentation, though—the sound mix was a bit uneven, Jungshin’s vocals were mixed too low, and the guitars overall were not loud enough. But as usual, their high-quality songbook and charismatic stage presence carried the show.
This time around the band went for a big rock sound, with leader, guitarist and vocalist Yonghwa wearing big ol’ hoop earrings for the occasion, and as usual his steady and powerful vocals and flamboyant showmanship anchored the show. He also busted out a custom-made hot pink guitar and contributed a couple blistering guitar solos.
Bassist Jungshin has been recruited to sing the vocal parts of departed guitarist Lee Jonghyun and I held my breath every time he sang lead. But he acquitted himself well, considering most of his parts were not written for him and not in the strongest part of his range. He was clearly nervous the first night and that tension revealed itself in some of his vocals, but by the second night he’d loosened up quite a bit and did just fine. It must be a little weird for him to sing the parts previously sung by his former bandmate—like filling the shoes of a ghost. But I was rooting for him and for the most part he did really well, especially on the duet Glory Days, where he competently and confidently swapped lines with Yonghwa. This is a person who in his youth practiced on bass until his fingers bled in order to join CNBLUE, so it’s not surprising that he’s risen to the occasion of becoming the band’s second lead vocalist.
The funk rock tune from their latest Japan release, Let It Shine, sounded amazing live—the hooky guitar riff at the beginning was all you could want and more. The live performance of their most recent Korean single, Love Cut, a truly amazing song, also had much added value. Right before the bridge Yonghwa took a long, long pause that brilliantly set off the song’s tempo change and that allowed his voice and acoustic guitar to ring through the arena. As an experienced showman, Yonghwa gauged precisely how long to hold the pause and it was exactly the right length of time. Somewhat briefer but equally effective pauses appeared in other songs throughout the show, including Trigger, Moon, and Butterfly, where dead silence falls for a moment before the beat of the song picks up again. This reminded me of the Japanese concept of ma (間), the energy found in the space between notes which is employed by Japanese classical music, art, and architecture. It’s also related to the Taoist principle of yin/yang, where absence is as important as presence. Yonghwa understands that silence accentuates sound and he uses that effect masterfully in CNBLUE’s live shows.
Also included in the show were all the good things that make up an excellent rock concert experience such as shiny metallic confetti streamers, a disco ball illuminating the arena, and flashpots of flames on stage. The band also had an extended commentary session explaining their sorrow at not being able to return as four members and their hopes that fans would stick with them in their new incarnation. It was the only direct reference they made to their past struggles but it resonated with the audience. Japan is CNBLUE’s stronghold but some fans stopped following the band after guitarist Jonghyun’s departure, so this acknowledgement of the controversy was a way to reassure fans that CNBLUE was back to stay.
By the second night the band was much more at ease, having gotten the opening night jitters out of the way, and along with a better sound mix there was much more happiness and less angst. The first night the camera captured Yonghwa staring out at the crowd several times with so much intensity—his eyes were like lasers. The second night he seemed much more happy-go-lucky, as if he had been unburdened of the weight of the hardships of the past five years. He ran up and down the width of the stage like a joyful child, rolled and frolicked on the stage, played guitar lying on his back, did a bit of pop-locking, and threw and caught his mic flawlessly. He did everything but kick up his heels. His voice was even stronger and more stable than the first night and he had several vocal pyrotechnics on display. This was most notable during the balls-out rock number Wake Up, during which he traveled up an octave or two to a throbbing high note that he sustained for a good ten seconds—when he held that high scream it was magic.
As with the first night, the rock songs blew the roof off the house, but my favorite set was the trio of Butterfly, Moon, and Can’t Stop. Those three are some of the most beautiful, poetic, and fully realized songs in CNBLUE’s repertoire and the mood they created together was transcendent.
Notably, to limit the spread of COVID-19 aerosols, audiences in Japan at both sporting events as well as concerts have been restricted in the types of cheering allowed (a Japanese theme park famously asked roller coaster riders to “please scream inside your heart”). For the most part, loud cheering and shouting is not permitted so the audience at Budokan clapped vigorously instead. Due to the absence of cheering, any call-and-response was also absent, so Junghsin had to cover those parts as well. Along with singing his brand-new second lead parts and holding it down on bass guitar he was the hardest working man in show biz.
Overall the shows reflected Kpop’s extremely parasocial relationships. Prior to the show outside of Budokan the fans began gathering hours before the concert to hang out with each other and to exchange fangifts (선물, ソンムル, seonmul), which are little packages of sweets, postcards, stickers, and other handmade items. Kpop fans are notoriously dedicated and will famously do anything for their chosen favorites. In the US this took an interesting turn when BTS fans used their collective might by reserving huge blocks of free tickets to a rally held by the former President then not showing up, completely wrecking the event by creating the visual spectacle of hundreds of empty seats. CNBLUE fans are no strangers to charitable causes and have donated tons of rice, given school supplies to disadvantaged kids, and donated to typhoon victims in the Philippines. It’s one of the most appealing aspects of Kpop fandoms and for better or worse reflects the bond between the performer and fans.
Also, although Kpop may seem like a teen phenomenon, most of the members of the crowd at Budokan were in their twenties and thirties, and some were quite a bit older than that—I saw some ladies in their seventies. I did not see any teenagers, though there might have been a few, and I also saw maybe five men of any age, though there might have been more sprinkled throughout the crowd. CNBLUE concerts are definitely a gendered space for women who enjoy rock music, so I felt right at home.
Emerging from the first night’s show at Budokan we were treated to the sight of a lunar eclipse overhead in the sky. It seemed somehow appropriate after CNBLUE’s first show in so many years and after so much strife. One of the track’s written by Yonghwa on the band’s latest Japan release is titled Moon and the lyrics also describe this experience.
Aiming for the dawn together
Overcoming, going up and down
Beyond the dark tunnel
A crescent moon is in the clear sky
Let’s start from here
After these concerts CNBLUE’s fandom has been reinvigorated. Their next two shows on this short Japan tour have sold out and fans are excitedly discussing potential live shows next year. They’ve even been trending on twitter in the US, which hopefully may lead to another world tour sometime soon. Their music and live shows are world-class and it would be great to see them make inroads into the US market and beyond.
For a starter kit of CNBLUE songs go here.