Dengue Fever @ The CedarJul 14, 2014
Live shows are better when the artists involved, whether they’re “opening act--main act” status or double-marquee, don’t sound the same. In fact, a personal truism of mine is that the less they sound like each other, the better the overall performance will be. Such was the case at the Cedar Cultural Center last night when Minneapolis local Nathan Nelson’s American Cream took the stage to open for Los Angeles psych-poppers Dengue Fever. The bands are at odds musically in more ways than I can describe with brevity, but the main differences (aside from sound, obviously) lie in technique. When I asked Nelson to describe his band’s style he told me he shies away from words like “improv” and “jam” because of their masturabatory connotation--their style, he told me, is one of “instant composition.” Dengue Fever on the other hand is, if nothing else, a revival band: they’re reviving 60’s psych, surf, and Cambodian pop--recycling riffs from different genres and mincing them into a cohesive sound. While both bands were entertaining, American Cream’s Can-esque wall of sound had a visceral and almost interpersonal effect on the audience, which clashed with Dengue Fever’s rambunctious riffs and sing-alongs; Fever’s set tore down the fourth wall that separates the spectator from the performer (they actually invited fans on stage for their encore) andbrought the masses at the CCC back to the outer world. So let's get into how this totally transformative experience went down.
When Nathan Nelson said that most improv music is masturbatory I had a laugh, it’s true. But when I was watching American Cream perform I never would have guessed the music was improvised, or to use the Nelson’s term “instantly composed.” They have a sound that goes places, but never sounds as if it’s in too much of a hurry to get there. Their sound is influenced as much by jazz as by the progressive Krautrock that Nelson says shaped his youth: he cites Miles Davis and Can as the musicians who have had the biggest influence on his music, and it shows.
My favorite part of their set was when Nelson’s wife (the crowd at this point was sparse) carried his toddler (wearing protective headphones, obviously) to the front of the stage. The young man waved to dad before mom took him back out to the main room. This was one of the most heartfelt/hilarious things I’ve ever had the privilege to see at a concert, and it speaks volumes to the down home nature of American Cream’s music. Nelson is a Minneapolis stalwart. His new record features 24 other musicians from the Minneapolis area, all of whom, he tells me, fantastic musicians and good people.
I can’t finish the description without discussing the great mystery of their set (one I later solved). During one of the last tracks an extremely long-haired and androgynous human being climbed aboard the stage armed with a saxophone. Kurt Vile-esque hair hanging in their face, they belted out three minutes of avant-garde tenor-sax before departing in the same fashion in which they arrived. Was it a boy? Was it a girl? The leg and arm hair was minimal. No one knew. It was the hair; it was so confusing; it could have been Victoria LeGrand or Slash. Later I saw his moustache and figured it out.
Los Angeles’ Dengue Fever are a cultural enigma. Their lead singer Chnom Nimol is a Cambodia import whose father was a musician in the country’s burgeoning 1960’s pop music sing. The brothers Holtzman--Ethan on keys and Zac on guitar and vox (I say the brothers Holtzman because Zac was rocking a beard that Dostoyevsky would have envied)--are L.A. musicians who were intrigued (after Ethan took a trip to Cambodia) by Cambodian pop and pysch music. Their charismatic bassist Senon Williams (who is by now world renowned for thrusting his pelvis into his bass and making the “oh” face) was playing with L.A.’s Radar Bros until 2009 when he began performing with Dengue Fever exclusively. Their drummer Paul Smith doesn’t appear to have any prior allegiance. Clearly though, this is a band with supernumerous influences and interests.
By the time the band took the stage the audience, which as I said was sparse during American Cream, had really filled in. It was the most people I’ve ever seen at the Cedar, but then again I don’t make it to many shows at the Cedar. From their opening track, “Girl From the North,” onwards the band did everything in it’s power to get the crowd involved. The perennial example of this was audience sing-along over “Ah Go Go,” where Chnom strutted the stage and stuck the microphone in the faces of a number of fans who responded to her call outs by shouting back, “AH GO GO.” Very intense stuff. I was relieved that I was three rows back.