Current K-pop hits blast over the PA in Chicago’s Rosemont Theatre, the lights begin to dim and screams of excitement fill the room. The event taking place this weekend – KCON Premiere – might not be as busy as the main KCON festival will be in August, but with this being the first chance to gather for a multi-act K-pop concert in the US since the pandemic, it feels just as thrilling.
- READ MORE: KCON 2022 Premiere In Chicago recap: NMIXX and CRAVITY bring the power, BTOB bring the emotion
Split over two days (May 20 and 21), the warm-up event plays host to five unmissable acts, each representing a different point of K-pop’s multi-faceted, inventive spectrum. There are, mostly, fresh new artists on the rise and, in de facto headliners BtoB, an established giant of the scene. The CUBE Entertainment boyband – down to five members here, with singer and maknae Sungjae otherwise engaged filming a drama in Korea – feel like friendly seniors taking the younger groups under their wing here, not least with Peniel and Eunkwang serving as MCs and steering the KCON Premiere ship through games, meet and greets and more.
Those interactions allow each group the chance to show of their personalities and connect with the crowd. BtoB pull up fans from the audience each day to help them in a game where they have to act out choreography from K-pop tracks, CRAVITY play against each other to guess other artists’ songs via emojis and TO1 indulge in a segment called ‘Face Attack’. These moments are fun and silly breathers that break up the nights – and help KCON Premiere feel like a bottling of the different strands that make up KCON – but sometimes feel like they drag on too long or are wasting time that could be spent on more performances.
When the artists on the line-up do get to perform, though, they don’t waste a moment. All but BtoB are appearing on international stages for the first time, thanks to the pandemic (although even performing in Chicago is a first for BTOB), and they put their all into making strong first impressions.
CRAVITY bring with them flumes of smoke and pyro for an energetic version of ‘Adrenaline’, while ‘My Turn’ highlights their ability to deliver power and infectious fun. In person, JYP Entertainment‘s recent debutantes NMIXX are able to make a more impactful portrayal of their first tracks, with the divisive ‘O.O’ sounding infinitely more cohesive live, while ‘Tank’ shines even brighter. TO1, meanwhile, show off their duality, from storming, bass-y EDM with a perfectly executed athletic choreo (‘No More X’) and a softer, but not weaker, take on OneRepublic’s ‘Someday’.
The strongest impression of all, though, is made by STAYC on Saturday. The High Up Entertainment girl group have been winning over fans since 2020 with their fresh, youthful pop songs and the effects of that growing fanbase are felt deeply in Chicago. Their clarion call of “STAYC girls, it’s going down!” bellows throughout the room every time it pops up in a song (and even when it doesn’t), while their performances burst with bright energy that captivates the crowd, whether they’re sharing renditions of the more mature ‘RUN2U’ or the cheerfully catchy ‘ASAP’. If KCON Premiere in Chicago foreshadows what’s to come for them, expect their future tours to be an incredibly hot ticket.
If much of the bill has something to prove, BtoB don’t have to worry so much about that. The group have already carved out their niche, regularly pulling at our heartstrings with poignant ballads. Some of those songs get an airing this weekend – ‘The Song’, the title track from their 2022 album ‘Be Together’, kicks off both of their sets, while 2017’s ‘Missing You’ rounds things off. In between, things vary across the two nights, but the shift in setlist carries a similar mood. On Saturday, ‘Dreamer’ sparkles with buoyant vitality as they bounce through the middle of the crowd in one of the best moments of their collective appearances all weekend.
Both days end with collaborative, chaotic closers, following covers from the girl groups on the bill (NMIXX tackle Gayle’s ‘abcdefu’, while STAYC rock out with Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘good 4 u’). Each day, the full line-up bursts through side doors and into the crowd to dance, sing and rap along to Psy and Suga’s ‘That That’, the mood in the room reaching a giddy peak. It’s far from the most flawless, polished moment of the weekend but a testament to the power of live music and unity, and – like the rest of the event – a euphoric reminder of the joy that can be spread through song and dance.