Published Feb 10, 2015There was a kind of wedding vibe to Dengue Fever's set at the Biltmore on February 9, but in a good way. Having driven up all the way from Los Angeles, this sextet brought their distinctive take on '60s Cambodian psych-pop with them, informed by a propulsive mix of Latin, Afro-beat and Motown that's as sure to please Grandma and the father of the bride as the average hipster. Granted, the rainy Monday delivered to them an only half-full venue, but their stage presence and energetic style caused slow burns of loosey-goosey neck wiggles and eruptions of dancing throughout the crowd during their set.
Senon Williams was certainly a big presence, looking like The Mountain from Game of Thrones as he towered over the rest of his band mates, but it was more than just physical size. He worked his fat bass lines across the stage, interacting with wah-wah'd-up guitarist Zac Holtzman, snappy drummer Paul Smith and tripped out keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, the latter of whom got everything one could from a Nord and small Casio. When Williams stood up front and confidently if daringly nodded for "Only a Friend," he projected a cool that would make anyone seeing it want to be a bass player more than anything else in the band.
Lead singer Chhom Nimol was a diminutive figure by most standards, but her voice was massive, nailing that Cambodian yodel known as ghost voice where she'd slip into a kind of nasal yet sweet falsetto. She employed a rather introverted sway for "Tokay" as she teased out the lofty, elongated melodies of the swanky opening track from their new album The Deepest Lake, cutely danced with Zac during the synth intro to "Tiger Phone Card," and later got the crowd doing Khmer hand gestures. Slipping off to the back of the stage to use a sweat towel between tracks, her effort was apparent.
Horn man David Ralicke earned the MVP of the night, though. He played flute worthy of Ian Anderson for "Uku" and a delayed trumpet for "Tokay" and "Sober Driver," a dreamy track from their 2008 record Venus on Earth in which Zac replaced Echo Park with Vancouver to further endear themselves to the crowd, but he was at his most incendiary on saxophone. Ralicke laid down blistering sax solos on "Only a Friend" and, most notably, on "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula," from their 2005 album Escape From Dragon House, during which he stood on a sub and thrust his hips for emphasis, then wandered into the crowd and pogoed while he played.
Altogether, they were a little rough around the edges, but they ultimately got to where they needed to be. They worked the modest crowd into a lather with their surf/spy jams, and they seemed to pick up steam as they went along, peaking with single "Rom Say Sok" and a rendition of " Still Waters Run Deep" that pushed the tempo of the recorded version to breakneck speed. The latter saw Ralicke playing a baritone, spinning around in place to the point of near-queasiness, and Williams later followed suit.
For their epic encore, "Mr. Orange," Ralicke wasn't playing much, so he grabbed a mic for the wordless hook and got the crowd to sing it, grabbing the stand by its base and swinging the mic into the faces at the front of the crowd, then danced the mashed potato while Williams took a turn pogoing in the crowd — though Ralicke still ripped found time to rip a wicked sax solo in there. As the house tossed on the Exciters' apt "So Long, Goodnight" to play them off, Ralicke stuck around to shake hands with the front row, Nimol took pictures with people and the rest of the band hung out at merch booth to greet their fans. They are truly of and for the people.