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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Southbank Centre presents

Ray Davies’ Meltdown


Dengue Fever



Baxter Drury


Maria and the Mirrors


Queen Elizabeth Hall


12 June 2011


At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I have to say that Maria and the Mirrors thankfully short set was so loud you couldn’t even hear what they were doing. That said, there were visuals galore…The sight of the lone punky looking male in the group wearing a top so encrusted with silver sequins that it looked like disco chain metal, tinkering with his sampler at the back, as his two female band members (for lack of a better term) stood bashing at their respective drum kits, effectively, wiggling while they worked in shiny skin tight pants, midriff tops and chunky high heels. Some of the paunchier middle aged males in the audience seemed riveted. But it would take more than that to convince me that this group was worth seeing.

Baxter Dury’s group, on the other hand, showed genuine promise, as some of their material teetered on the edge of shining, though Dury (son of the late Ian Dury) quipped that it had been a ‘long trip’ and seemed a bit too disinterred through most of the set for it to ever be at its best. Still, the reluctantly pop-rock material intrigued at times, and with the help of the group’s melodic female backup singer, if Dury could calm his angst a bit, and put a little less into his singing (his voice is rather flat), thus allowing for some harmonies, which she attempted at times, some of his songs might bite, a bit. I wouldn’t want to say it runs in the family, but he’s definitely at his best talk-singing and, his aging mod stance seems right.

Dengue Fever was dynamic from the outset, with their winning lineup of five Californian musicians: Ethan Holtzman on Farfisa organ, vocalist/guitarist brother Zac, bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith, David Ralicke on brass, and their amazing Cambodian lead singer, Chhom Nimol. As bass player Senon Williams sees the group: ‘When our sax player is playing an African horn line and Zac is playing a surf guitar line and I’m playing more of an R&B bass-line, we’re playing three different things but we’re smashing them together. We all have our own musical influences but Nimol always centres us back to Khmer rock.’

This diverse group was founded in 2001 after Ethan, inspired by a ‘97 back-packing trip to Cambodia, came home with tapes of once flourishing U.S. and European influenced Cambodian rock, circa 1960’s, and ‘70’s, sung in Khmer, more than forbidden under the genocidal Khmer Rouge, as any foreign influences were stamped out and virtually all of the popular singers of the day were either executed or died of exhaustion from hard labour. In the course of their search for a singer who could sing in Khmer, and help them revive this lost music, the Holtzmans discovered Chhom Nimoi, an acclaimed karaoke singer from Cambodia, who’d moved to the States after visiting her sister and realizing she could make more money to send back home singing in a club in the Little Phnom Penh region of Long Beach, California.

All of Dengue Fever’s albums have generated great interest, starting with their self-titled debut in 2003 featuring covers of 1960’s Cambodian rock songs by murdered singers Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea. Their second release, Escape from Dragon House (2005), (the club Chhom was working in when they found her) was along similar lines, but with original material as well. Their third, award winning release (Best World Fusion Album of 2008), Venus on Earth, was also a hybrid, with original songs written first by the Holtzmans in English, then translated to Khmer. The group was signed to Real World Records by WOMAD’s Peter Gabriel then, and their album was released in all territories outside of the U.S. and Canada. Subsequent releases are Sleepwalking through the Mekong (2009) and Cannibal Courtship (2010).

Although I’d heard of them, I’d never seen Dengue Fever play live before their Meltdown appearance. Yet, I was instantly hooked the minute they began to play! Their music is vibrant, rich and at times, really rocking. In other moments, when it slows down a bit, it’s both soulful and plaintive, but not overly so, to the point of getting bogged down in either aspect – it’s always too free flowing and fluctuating for that. As a long-term lover of mini-movie music of U.S. ‘60’s girl groups like the Shangri-La’s (I don’t shed musical styles, only add more as I go along) and the lush melodrama of their ‘death discs’, i.e. ‘Leader of the Pack,’ etc., I somehow made a more or less instantaneous connection with some of the group’s material, and the expressive way in which energetic, personable Chhom Nimol sings it. As I’m always up for some good, hard driving rock, I was also able to link into the instrumentation on the group’s songs. Though it must be said that there is the real promise of a duet to be reckoned with in the duo of bearded Zac Holtzman, looking, for all the world like a seasoned explorer, and the diminuative Ms. Nimoi, who sang off each other and sweetly tied and untied musical knots together, forming them into tight harmonic bows.

Among the many crowd pleasers performed (I don’t have a set list, so bear with me) were: ‘Sni Bong’, ‘Sleepwalking Through the Mekong’, both on the Digi EP (2005), the latter of which is a real showpiece for Chhom’s lovely, wide ranging voice, catchy duets ‘Tiger Phone Card’ and ‘Sober Driver’ with it’s cool, secret agent ‘60’s riffs and inflections, the irresistible ‘A Go Go’, which surely was a big hit for the group, ‘Integration’, a song with especially intriguing instrumentation, and more than a tinge of Ethiopia in it, the evocative ‘Uku’, from their debut album, featuring superb rock guitar and funky Farfisa, ‘Mr. Orange’ with its’ off-beat ‘Telstar’ like, expansive riffs, tinged with U.S. roots rock n roll, Cambodian 60’s pop-rock and Ethiopian organ…and so it went. There were many more songs, but I have yet to track down their titles.

Though obviously enjoying the music, the crowd remained seated until Chhom Nimoi herself called out to them to dance, imploring those who ventured down near the stage to stay once one movement inducing song had ended and another began. It was all go from there for me, alternating between dancing in the empty back row in the front section of the stalls, and taking notes, moving along when those too timid to hit the aisle sought release. There was lots of screaming, cheering and clapping intermittently throughout the set until the band at last called it a night, but not before reminding us they’d ‘stick around’ to sign things…Though by then, a sweaty, good time had been had by most, if not all of the fans in the house, some of them, possibly, new like ones like me.

As the group’s bass player Senon Williams said about the original source of their musical inspiration in a recent interview:The Cambodians did psychedelic rock differently than anyone else did. They would sing in the microtonal Cambodian way, then they’d bring in a traditional Cambodian instrument but record it through a broken mic, so it sounded like it was being recorded in the bottom of the sea.”

You might not be able to sing most of Dengue Fever’s songs in the bath, but once you’ve linked into their unique sound, it won’t be for lack of trying.


Editor’s Note: Dengue Fever is partnered with Wildlife Allilance, http://www.wildlifealliance.org/who in turn, have linked to many organisations aiding causes in Cambodia, such as wildlife and forest conservation. All of the proceeds from‘Electric Cambodia’, an album of pre-Khmer Rouge, Cambodian rock circa ‘60’s and 70’s that the group compiled in 2010 are donated to Cambodian Living Arts.
Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX
Meltdown Festival
Until Sun. 19th of June 2011
Ticket Office: +44 (0)844 875 0073


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