Saturday Night: Dengue Fever At Fitzgerald's

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Dengue Fever Fitzgerald's May 7, 2011

Someone asked Aftermath Saturday afternoon to describe what kind of music Dengue Fever plays. "Well, it's like '60 psychedelic pop with Cambodian lyrics, and also some California surf guitar and Ethiopian jazz and and girl-group thrown in. Wait - that makes it sound awful. It's better than that, it's like..."

Our companion stepped in to save us: "They kind of defy categorization."

In fact, the best way Aftermath can think of to describe their music is a phrase that comes from the band itself. Listening to Dengue Fever is like Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. Chhom Nimol's haunting Khmer vocals and the trippy, sometimes dissonant psychedelia her backing band plays can transport you into another time and a place where you are never quite sure what's going on, but you're determined to enjoy the ride anyway.

That phrase comes from the band's own documentary about their return to Cambodia to record after organist Ethan Holtzman's initial trip, and subsequent love affair with, the country. Holtzman and brother Zac, who plays guitar, founded the band.

That film shows just one of Dengue Fever's many stages of development. Though they're on tour now to support their fifth album, Aftermath has seem them three times in Houston in as many years - first at the Orange Show, then last year as they scored a soundtrack for the Cinema Arts Festival's screening of The Lost World. Each time, the band seemed to be in different phases of their development.

Saturday night at Fitzgerald's felt like another step in that evolutionary chain. The band's new album, Cannibal Courtship, has a more beach-rock/girl-group vibe than previous albums, but Nimol sang exclusively in Khmer for their first four songs, twirling her hands in the manner of a traditional Khmer court dance.

When they switched to English for the song "Cement Slippers", Nimol's voice sounded so much clearer than previous performances, and she began to bop around the stage (in three-inch sparkling heels, no less) with more energy than we'd ever seen her display.

The girl-group vibe must be working, because it's clear now that Nimol is learning to command the role of front woman with her personality instead of relying on her aching, echoing voice to carry her. She seemed so much more comfortable onstage, and as a result, Saturday's performance was the best we've seen from the band to date.

The darkness, red lights and muggy weather only helped the displaced, spacey, lost in another world feel.

Towards the end of the show, Spain Colored Orange, who has been touring with Dengue Fever during the Texas leg, joined the band on stage for a "Sober Driver." When they played "Tiger Phone Card," Nimol, sensing the energy coming from the crowd, extended her mike so some fans could sing the chorus.

We thought to ourselves, wonder when this band is going to play Austin City Limits? Catch them in a small venue like Fitz while you still have the chance.

Personal Bias: Girl groups and K-pop, plus a healthy does of incurable wanderlust

The Crowd: Mature and mesmerized

Overheard In the crowd: A bro-tastic "Whoooo! I love Dengue Fever!"

Random Notebook Dump: You know that Bollywood dance scene to Jan Pehechaan Ho? Where you don't know what the hell they're singing about and everybody's just dancing their asses off?

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