I first stumbled onto Dengue Fever in a recommendations section of eMusic, an alternative MP3 merchant that is actually still around today. I’m not sure what music I was listening to that prompted their algorithm to present them to me, but boy was I glad. Their music just spoke to me, partly because it sounded so foreign and yet so incredibly familiar. Dengue Fever is best described as psychedelic Cambodian surf rock that never relents. Every beat is filled with a pure energy that pulses out in such a way that dancing becomes involuntary. This certainly was the case earlier this week as Dengue Fever took over Schubas.
The first thing I noticed when walking into Schubas was the incredibly diverse audience ready to let themselves go to Dengue Fever. I’m used to diverse crowds, but this one stood out. Parents bringing their grown children, young groups of boisterous girls, older Cambodian couples dressed to the nines ready to dance the night away. It doesn’t matter that more than half their songs are sung in Khmer or that their soundscapes are incredibly indebted to Kantrum. Everyone was primed and ready, showing how universal Dengue Fever’s sound can be. Whatever the age group or background, it seemed like they were all incredibly happy to be around more fans of the band.
There was palpable excitement as the band made their way through the crowd. Coming in to start at about 30 minutes past their scheduled time, there was an understandable eagerness to get things going. Luckily the band was ready to run on all cylinders, finding a groove with the crowd rather easily. Lead singer Chhom Nimol stood center stage commanding the crowd like no other as her voice cut through the venue with her satisfying wails of joy. Zac Holtzman and Senon Williams would share a mic and belted out harmonies while playing guitar and bass respectively. Ethan Holtzman and Paul Smith hung towards the back of the stage making their presence known through their instruments. However, David Ralicke pretty much stole the show as he jumped around with abandon and jammed out on a myriad of brass instruments.
Their set list took quite a few cues from their earlier material. They played half their first album throughout the night. The extended horns on “Pow Pow” lit up the venue while “Hold My Hips” inspired smooth swaying that infectiously moved through the audience. It’s quite surprising how easily they can rally a crowd. Dengue Fever literally brought the crowd into the creation of music, like when Williams extended his bass out to let audience member strum at the frets or during “A Go Go” where the mic shot out into the crowd for their support. Not that it needed to be as everyone was already reciting the catchy chorus pretty loudly. At one point the floors of Schubas were being stomped so loudly that the booming sounds became part of the song.
“Tiger Phone Card,” the song that confirmed my admiration of the band, came late into the set and was met with a glorious response. The song trades off lines between Chhom and Zac as they narrate a long distance relationship that always ends up in the eventual reuniting embraces that occur between the couple. The performance was accompanied by the majority of the crowd softly singing along, “The first thing that I do/is throw my arm around you/and never let go.” It was a sweet high point between the band and crowd serenading each other to the end.
After the encore, which included a loud and invigorating rendition of “I’m 16,” the band congregated with the audience, incredibly willing to meet and talk at length with their adoring fans. The night felt like a party, which in many ways it was as Nimol explained their April tour as an extension of Cambodian New Year. I’ve been to very communal shows, but Dengue Fever’s time at Schubas felt the most organic. It wasn’t so much going to see a phenomenal band play as it was meeting up with old friends.
All photos by Julian Ramirez