This is my account of the one concert in this year's Meltdown festival I made it to. Read part one here, if you want to.
And then Dengue Fever. I was talking about them to the people from work, mentioning that they formed to cover Cambodian pop music from the late 1960s and early 1970s, going on to write their own tunes in a similar style. That sounds amazingly niche, the kind of music that only some kind of world music ponce would listen to, but that reckons without three important factors. Firstly, the pop music of Cambodia is just amazing, a kind of pop-psych sound that simply cries out for a wider audience; any band playing half-decent versions of this music would be worth a listen. Secondly, Dengue Fever are a most exquisite live band – in fact, they have a tightness and presence that make me think of them as one of the most impressive live bands of our times. And thirdly, their tiny singer Chhom Nimol is blessed with the most astonishing set of lungs and vocal chords; she is the archetypal little woman with the big voice, managing to sing beautifully as well as loudly and project an aura of star quality. She would be the secret weapon in any band, and it is great that she is able to bring the great songs of past Cambodian singers to a contemporary audience.
The band fully lived up to the picture I have painted for them above, wowing the audience with their stage presence, tight playing, and Chhom Nimol's unbounded charisma and ability. They look great on stage, with Chhom's lovely gown contrasting nicely with Zac Holtzman's amazing beard, and her small size off-set by the astonishing height of bassist Senon Gaius Williams.
But there is always a spectre hanging over this music, for all its joyfulness. That spectre is of course the Khmer Rouge regime, which shut down Cambodia's pop music scene and killed off almost everyone involved in it as part of a general extermination of their various enemies. While listening to the infectious rhythms of 'New Year's Eve', I was briefly overcome with emotion as I reflected in particular on the sad and brutal death of the gentle-faced singer Sinn Sisamouth – killed with sharpened sticks after a long period of incarceration and torture.
That said, Dengue Fever's music is so uplifting that it is impossible to maintain a sad mood for long. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is a seated venue, but the band soon had people dancing in the aisles and rushing to the front of the auditorium. I don't think anyone could have left this concert without a happy smile on their face. If I had a single quibble, it would be that maybe Chhom Nimol's vocals were at times a bit over-amplified – on duets like 'Tiger Phone Card' or 'Sober Driver' she did rather drown out Zac Holtzman's admittedly less strong voice. But that was just a minor annoyance, one that did not cause a bother on the great many tracks that she sings alone.
I did not recognise a great many of the songs the band played – I am guessing these were tunes from the new album, Cannibal Courtship. These sounded pretty good in the live context, even 'Cement Slippers', which under-impressed me when I first heard it. The songs I knew included some from the earlier records where they sing in Khmer and some from the likes of Venus On Earth, where there are English-language vocals, including the sublime love song 'Tiger Phone Card'.
I hope sometime to get round to buying the new album; I could have done after the show, but there was a bit of a queue for the merchandise, and we were already out past my bedtime.
An inuit panda production