Dengue Fever at Crescent Ballroom, 1/26/11

Dengue Fever Crescent Ballroom Thursday, January 26

The setting was the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, but given the atmosphere and exotic sounds emanating from the stage, it may as well have been Cambodia circa mid-1970s. Eyes closed, it hardly mattered, Dengue Fever was in its element, and that element joined seemingly incompatible cultures.

Phnom Penh was a swinging cosmopolitan city full of bustling nightclubs and music parlors as the 1970s hit the mid-point. That was before the Khmer Rouge rose to power and put an end to outward expressions of musical bliss. Yet, in the years prior, Cambodia musicians influenced by Western rock and roll and psychedelic music created some astounding works.

This is the jumping off point for Dengue Fever. The Los Angeles band, fronted by Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, mixes lost Cambodian rock classics with similarly influenced and penned numbers. The result is a cross-cultural swirl where east meet west and both musical forms surprisingly complement each other perfectly. While American psych or garage rock(with some surf overtones tossed in) is the underlying premise of many of the songs, a Southeast Asian spin of angular, off-kilter rhythms and leads is duly applied. The band had no trouble bringing this blend to life before this largely in the-know crowd.

The show kicked off with a Cambodian cover song from an early Dengue Fever release (the first album was all covers, the second mostly), though the name was not revealed. In fact, none of the Cambodian songs performed this night was named, but all transformed the space with deep emotions and intensity, the unknown lyrics as much an instrument as the guitar or keys rounding out the songs. (No wonder Nimol, in a tight fitting bright green dress, sang for the Cambodian king and queen.)

There were a number of songs from Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever's latest album, and a couple from Venus On Earth, the previous. These were met with the most recognition, and it was easy to fall into the knowing groove with each. Nimol and guitarist Zac Holtzman traded lyrical barbs on a pair of these songs, including current college radio star "Cement Slippers." The back and forth interplay seemed genuine, and added another lively element to the intoxicating performance.

But it was the psychedelic haze in the dexterous bass playing, otherworldly organ sounds, stinging James Bond-mystiqued Asian surf guitar and Nimol's captivating vocals that really set the overall mood more than any one song could. Each song carried the listener back to another time and place--a place most (probably all) had never been--but also a place that fits perfectly right here, right now.

The enraptured audience is the proof.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Dengue Fever The Crowd: Worldly indie fans Further Listening: The Broken Flowers soundtrack. Matching the unique pace of the Jim Jarmusch film, the album features wordly stuff like Dengue Fever and Mulatu Astatke alongside Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleep, and Marvin Gaye.

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