On the Dengue Fever TrailDecember 16, 2011
Dengue Fever and their singer Chhom Nimol celebrated ten years of performing together with the just ended “Electric Mekong Tour”. I was fortunate to have seen three of the shows on the tour, two in Phnom Penh, one in Battambang, adding these to a long list of shows I have seen the band perform since 2003, and they were, to cut to the chase, phenomenal shows all.
I will admit complete ignorance as to how it’s possible for a band like this to carry for ten years as they have given the state of the music industry, but however they have managed, their fans around the world are supremely grateful.
As I write this, their most recent album “Cannibal Courtship”, on Fantasy (a grown up label, see Creedence Clearwater) ranks #88 on Amazon’s World Music Rock chart. In May it peaked at a very respectable #4 on Billboard’s World Music charts. Their 2008 release “Venus on Earth” hit #3 on those same charts. But despite these showings I’m guessing that even with money earned from TV and movie licensing (where the band has done well) the band hasn’t the luxury to hang around the house and call in a an album release every couple years even if they wanted to. And so they tour, because they need to, sure, but nobody needs to tour Cambodia, or Vietnam, and certainly not Laos. No, this is a band which obviously loves the music they make and the impact it has on fans old and new.
My first exposure to the band was in early 2003 at one of the first City of Ghosts screenings in Los Angeles. I had made a second trip to Cambodia a few months previously so wasn’t going to miss it. The film features Chhom Nimol and Dengue Fever’s reworking of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” over the closing credits, and it was, to say the least, memorable. By the time of City of Ghosts’ release, the band had been named Los Angeles’ Best New Band by the LA Weekly, and its eponymously titled first album was just a couple of months from release. The in-store performance at Amoeba records celebrating the album release in April was the first time I got to see the band; a bunch of guys from my neighborhood and the beautiful Nimol, playing together like a band that had been together for a lot longer than they had. They may honor garage rock as part of their musical heritage, but this has always been a band with serious musical chops, obvious even then.
Fast forward to fall 2005, I’m now living in Phnom Penh, and having gotten to know Dengue Fever keyboardist Ethan Holtzman a bit, am lending a hand in setting things up for their first Cambodia tour. That, as many of you may have heard, did not all work out perfectly, but the debacle of a canceled gig at the Peace Pub was far overshadowed by the three performances in Phnom Penh which did not involve “rickety stages”, especially the band’s blistering performance at Snowy’s bar Maxine’s, glimpses of which you’ll catch on the “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” DVD which documents the tour. It’s unfortunate there was such a lag time between the tour and the DVD release, surely some sales momentum was lost, but the film itself is terrific and you should buy it now on Amazon.
Getting back to Cambodia after that 2005 tour was rough. Logistics are difficult, band members have families, it’s expensive, and there is for all intents and purposes, no money to be made from such a tour. It did finally come together last spring, with support from the U.S. Embassy and a lot of work on the ground, particularly by Cambodia Living Arts’ Dickon Verey, and two successful shows came off here in Phnom Penh.
Dengue Fever signed with Fantasy after returning from Cambodia last year and the first product of that partnership was the Cannibal Courtship release featuring all original songs. I know a lot of long-time fans who will say they like the old stuff better (meaning the Khmer pop covers from the first two albums), and I would agree that the newer material is less exotic, but I think it holds up well with repeated listenings (especially at loud volume). And it all sounds best live.
And so it was that with the US Embassy, Dengue Fever’s folks and Mr. Verey on the case again, the band was able to return to Cambodia last month for two shows in Phnom Penh, and single shows in Siem Reap, Kampot, Takeo and Battambang before ending the tour with performances in Vietnam and Laos.
Not exactly purpose built for concert going, FCC may not have been the band’s first choice of a place to play but it was a supremely successful gig regardless. At $10 head it was the only show meant to earn a profit for the tour (the Diamond Island concert proceeds being targeted for Cambodian Living Arts). Despite the limitations of the venue, the sound was decent, Nimol in good voice and the band on point. Not surprisingly the early part of the set included plenty of Khmer covers from the first two albums, newer material mid-set and a return to some favorites to end the night. Sitting right behind the mixer, I had particularly good vantage point to watch bass player Senon Williams and Zac Holtzman at work. I’ve especially come to appreciate Senon’s work of late, and this was the Cambodian debut of Zac’s monster guitar/chapei nicknamed the Mastadong so this was a fine place to be.
I visited the Diamond Island venue the afternoon before the show, and found the band and road staff hard at work getting the sound right for the evening show. The sound equipment, recently arrived from Vietnam, had been just used by the Black Eyed Peas (OK no comment there but you get the point it was good equipment).
Ticket sales had been brisk, we had sold out at Garage, and a full house of 1,000 persons plus was expected in the huge tented facility. This was a long way from Sharky’s I thought to myself (whose music manager was still whining about their venue not being considered for last year’s tour).
The Diamond Island show paid tribute to Dengue’s Khmer influences with a short set from chapei masters Kong Nai and Soun Samm. When band members joined the masters on stage it was a truly magical scene. Beyond the appearance of the chapei masters, the set list was little different from the earlier show. There were more Khmer faces in the crowd than the FCC show and venue was crowded but not uncomfortably so, and the air conditioners lining the tent did well enough to cool things down enough. As was true at FCC, the crowd responded well to both the old standbys and the newer material, Tiger Phone Card from the third album seems now to becoming a crowd favorite.
At the last minute I decided to make the trip to Battambang for the show there. Battambang is Nimol’s home town and it would be a free outdoor show, all of which promised a good show was in the offing. The bus ride turned into seven hours and my traveling companion and I arrived at the riverside park just as the band was launching into the second or third song of their set. Positioning myself to the front right of the stage in broken eardrum territory I could look back and see this was a far more enthusiastic crowd than the one which greeted Dengue at their first outdoor show in 2005 for whom the band were mostly a curiosity. This Battambang crowd clearly was enjoying the music, bopping up and down, dancing, girls hugging each other as they listened. The sound was iffy at times but not bad enough to spoil a fine evening.
Every Khmer band in the world plays “I’m Sixteen”, the song with which Dengue Fever often ends its sets. There are, to be sure, singers out there to give Chhom Nimol a run for the money (her sister for example). But nobody plays the song like Dengue Fever whose arrangement features instrumental breaks which give both sax player David Ralicke and guitarist Zac Holtzman ample opportunity to step up and take this music places it’s never gone before.
Photos courtesy of Marc Walker Photography