For millions of tourists, Las Vegas represents an escapist paradise; a neon-lit, anything-goes place whose entire brand is built on letting loose. This weekend (April 21-23), for a raft of K-pop fans, it becomes a bubble to immerse themselves in the music and culture of Korea, with an expo featuring food, fashion and more, and a two-night concert featuring some of the scene’s most electric stars.
There’s a sombre mood inside the Mandalay Bay’s Michelob Ultra Arena at the start of the first evening, though – and across the weekend. The event begins with a tribute to ASTRO’s Moonbin, who died last week, giving fans present the chance to honour his memory. It’s a moving moment, with concertgoers wiping tears from their eyes as photos of the charismatic, talented idol are shown on the big screen at the back of the stage.
The grief the K-pop community is going through is palpable at points of the two concerts and it’s difficult to enjoy the performances to the same extent as in happier times. Despite how unfathomably hard it must be to get on stage and perform right now, the artists each do their best to show up for their fans and bring some light into the darkness.
“I think there’s plenty of things in the city that are sparkly and I’m getting the same feeling looking at you,” ONEUS’ Keonhee says on day one of WeBridge, looking out over the crowd after the tropical-tinged ‘Same Scent’. The RBW boyband perform on both days of the festival and illuminate the stage both times with the same setlist – perhaps a missed opportunity to showcase more of their catalogue, but a chance for fans to really get to know the songs they do air.
If day one finds the group a little awkward in places, by day two they shine, nailing their impressive choreographies and dazzling more and more with each song. On both days, they tell the audience they want to transport us to their home country, and do so via performances of ‘Luna’ and ‘LIT’ that incorporate elements of Korean culture. Both songs highlight what events like WeBridge are – exchanges of culture that show both audience and artist new sides of the world.
A more modern part of recent K-pop releases has been the influence of rock and that can be felt across both nights of the festival. It’s most obvious in Dreamcatcher’s performance, as the girl group prove just how they’ve gained acclaim for being K-pop’s mosh queens with exhilarating renditions of ‘Mayday’ and ‘Scream’. “Please, I don’t want to scream,” Sua sings during the latter, yelling out the final word and heightening the excitement already created by their set.
Elsewhere, Kang Daniel opens his set by nodding to grunge icons Nirvana. He begins his performance with his song of the same name – a glossy pop anthem that gets things off to a bold start. After, he sings a small snippet of the riff from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, before continuing with his intoxicatingly smooth set. Day two headliners ENHYPEN make the influence more obvious in their performance of ‘Shout Out’, its punky riffs bursting through the PA as the group wander across the stage, singing its unifying lyrics to fans’ faces. It’s a fun moment, but the rest of their performance feels too bite-sized for a headliner – they deliver only four songs in the main set, before returning for a version of ‘Polaroid Love’ that feels like less of a performance and more a meet-and-greet set to music.
The mood at WeBridge and in K-pop generally might be heavy right now, but the festival gives some moments of celebration too. Day one’s headliner MONSTA X – who also only air five songs, plus a repeated encore of ‘Zone’ – give a sublime performance of emotional jams (‘Someone’s Someone’) and energetic, EDM-laced tracks. Early on in their set, the group – who are performing as a four-piece – give fans something to be happy about, with I.M relaying the news of Shownu being discharged from military service that morning.
Debut performances in Las Vegas – and, for some, in the US as a whole – go brilliantly. CIX make their mark on the city with a glittering set of infectious pop, like ‘Movie Star’ and the eternally brilliant ‘Cinema’. VIVIZ are clearly struggling with the aftermath of recent events, but give their performances of the likes of ‘#Flashback’ and ‘Bop Bop’ their all. BE’O, meanwhile, kicks off day two in exuberant form, winning over fans in his Stateside debut with lively versions of ‘Complex’ and ‘Counting Stars’.
Two industry stalwarts also impress. GOT7’s BamBam brightens the arena on day two, asking the audience to “skrrt skrrt” in unison with him, and sharing vibrant renditions of ‘Ride Or Die’ and his latest single ‘Sour & Sweet’ (“It’s ‘Sour & Sweet’, not ‘Sweet & Sour’,” he gently reaffirms beforehand).
But WeBridge’s most infectious and entertaining performer is Jessi, who stuns in her performances and has the audience in stitches in between. “You want to get to know,” she acknowledges during one segment, striding around, finding fans to make acquaintance with. When she reads one person’s sign thanking her for inspiring them, she tries to lean off the stage to hug them and ends up in a comical struggle. But back behind the microphone, and with the likes of a remix of ‘Nunu Nana’ that shows off not just her attitude, but her vocals too, and ‘Zoom’ pumping around the venue, she stands fierce, inspiring the crowd once again.