Dengue Fever + Pistolera at the Museum of Fine Arts, July 9, 2008
Who would have guessed that after an hour of bomping Tex-Mex polkas from the Brooklyn folklórico band Pistolera, it would be the ’60s Cambodian surf-pysch-girl pop of Dengue Fever that would get people dancing at the MFA’s Remis Auditorium (show moved indoors from the courtyard because of threatening weather) a week ago Wednesday. “Please stand up! It’s time to rock and roll,” said diminutive Dengue singer Chhom Nimol. That’s all she had to say. A song before, she’d brought up some “artists from Lowell” to help sing and dance, and now the whole room was up — the usual MFA/NPR types, white guys with their Asian girlfriends, and a mess of cool Cambodian women from Lowell who clearly worshipped Chhom’s every move and utterance.
Quick backstory: brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman fell for Cambodian pop and started Dengue Fever in Los Angeles in 2001, recruiting a couple of buddies and Chhom — a genuine Cambodian pop star with a good following in her home country. A disc of Cambodian cover tunes appeared, and then one of pysch-jams; now there’s Venus on Earth (M80), which focuses on songwriting and Chhom’s singing. An American take on a Cambodian take on American pop. Another version of the old cultural tale: Bogart to Belmondo to Bonnie and Clyde.
Dengue Fever’s charms are so extreme that at first they might strike you as incongruous — like a chocolate-covered lobster. Twangy surf guitar, cheesy-wheezy Farfisa organ riffs, funk tenor sax, and, above all, Chhom’s voice — quavering nasal headtones unfurling the minor-key pop melodies. But before long, camp gives way to a party vibe, a boogaloo that hints at Sam the Sham, the charm and fire of guy-girl vocal call-and-response (“You only call me because I’m sober and you want me to drive”).
Dengue Fever looked the part: Ethan mustachio’d and turbaned at the keyboard; Zac in a long Hassidic beard on guitar; towering brown, bald bassist Senon Williams; hippie saxist David Ralicke, short-bearded in brown leather vest and jeans; business-like drummer Paul Smith laying down the backbeat. Chhom, meanwhile, was in a short black-and-white baby-doll dress and four-inch heels. Every inch a star. Only in America.
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