Saturday Night: Dengue Fever at the Rickshaw Stop

Categories: Last Night, Music
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Dengue Fever
The Rickshaw Stop
Jan. 3, 2008
Review by Ezra Gale

Good bands are like recipes. A dash of this, a dash of that, and all of a sudden you've got yourself a winning formula that has critics drooling and your public lining up to taste the sensations at your French Laundry-like haunt in the valleys of Napa.

So imagine the recipe that led to Dengue Fever and their show at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco Saturday night. It's the most improbable of rock bands, equal parts white guy indie rockers from Long Beach with a hankering for campy psychedellic 1960's Cambodian Pop and one genuine Cambodian Pop princess, Cham Nhol. It might read something like this...

Ingredients:
− Five servings of Californian garage-rock enthusiast musicians. These are led by guitarist Zac Holtzman, who sports a ZZ Top-like beard and who started the band years ago when he hitched his love of obscure Cambodian pop to Nimol. But they also include crucial helpings of multi-saxophonist David Ralicke and Zac's brother Ethan on keyboards, whose unison riffs help to drench everything in a psychedellic 1960's vibe.

− Chham Nimol, one Cambodian pop star, arrestingly beautiful and piercingly unique, at least for indie rock (If you're a devotee of Cambodian pop maybe her flights of vocal fantasies are something you've heard before, if not, they're music to your ears).

− An audience hungry for a different sound, leading to a buzz that sells out the Rickshaw Stop for two nights in a row.

Mix these ingredients and stir gently. You will find the resulting potpourii of sound intriguing, if not without its drawbacks. On Saturday night one drawback was the venue sound system itself, which garbled the band's sound into a bass-heavy attack that almost obscured the tastes in its pallette- mainly Nhol's stunning voice. Another is the band's formulaic sound, which leavens mid-tempo garage rock with otherworldy Cambodian singing and tends to blend into sameness after too many helpings.

Still, this dish should be savored for its merits. On Saturday, as Dengue Fever plowed through stomping versions of Cambodian pop classics like "Lost In Laos" and "Hold My Hips" it built a momentum that gathered the different elements- campy Farfeesa organ, sinewy saxophone melodies, scratchy garage rock guitar riffs and Nimol's quasi-operatic wailings- into a heady stew. By the time the band roared into its most popular tune, "Seeing Hands," things were jelling nicely, with Senon Williams and Zac Holtzman leaping up and down together on the right of the stage while Nimol pranced the center in a shiny gold dress, captivating the crowd in front of her.

The band is obviously trying to broaden its attack, with newer songs like "Tiger Phone Card" and "Sober Driver" sung in English and featuring back and forth duets between Nimol and Zac Holtzman. It worked to vary the band's sound a little, but also took away somewhat from the band's strength, which is Nimol as the white-hot center of attention. Through a 16-song set her soaring vocal melismas enchanted again and again, soothing like a ballad even on more rocking songs like "Sni Bong."

But the band held its own alongside Nimol all night, showing a versatility and tightness garnered from a couple years spent touring around the U.S. and Europe. Returning for a three-song encore, the band started without Nimol for "Yegelle Tezela," an obscure rocker by Ethiopean jazz legend Mulatu, that proved the band's affinity for global grooves of all flavors.

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