(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Concert review, Dengue Fever with Secret Chiefs 3 and Action Friend

24 January 2012 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

Dengue Fever and Secret Chiefs 3 kicked off their national tour in Denver. As a tour of equals, the two bands plan to switch their play order from night to night. For this show, Dengue Fever took headliner duty and closed the show. Local band Action Friend started the show.

Action Friend
It's been a couple of years since I last saw Action Friend. Musically, they seemed to be on the same path as before, anchoring their songs in thick walls of metal thrash. That chaos created a miasma of sound to offset the more thoughtful islands of clarity. Those moments were sometimes jazzy or reflective indie rock, but they never lasted long before being subsumed in another change in sonic direction.

So, Action Friend's focus was still on experimentally grafting song snippets together into a Frankenstein whole. At the same time, the band's technical skills couldn't be denied. The sections themselves were often technically challenging and well executed.

One area where the band has really progressed is in their stage show. Their costumes fit well with the uneasy mood their music created. In particular, the lead singer's impassive Neanderthal presence during the opening instrumental was very entertaining.

I can't really talk too much about Action Friend, though, because I missed much of their set. I ducked out to interview Senon Williams and Ethan Holtzman from Dengue Fever.

Secret Chiefs 3
If Action Friend mashed up little slices of songs, Secret Chiefs 3 pureed whole genres. I had never heard of the band, but some fans in the crowd set me straight. They told me about frontman Trey Spruance who played guitar with Mr. Bungle (along with drummer Danny Heifetz). They also mentioned that Secret Chiefs 3 is actually several different bands in one. This lined up with the genre deconstruction of Mr. Bungle and proved to be the key to appreciating Secret Chiefs 3.

Once they started playing, I came to understand that. The opening song had an ambient start with a sustained chord on the keys and guitar string scratches creating a creepy mood. The bass kicked in with a solid groove, but song quickly mutated into a progressive/soundtrack kind of sound. The sound veered off into more intense grooves, emphasizing a metallic, post rock feel.

The first song seemed to set a theme for the night, but the next song tossed that out the window. A jangly Arabic groove meandered around, driven by Spruance's bizarre electric saz (a saz neck grafted onto a Danelectro Longhorn). The hypnotic groove broke down into jerky, off beat rhythmic lines. It was a trippy experience.

Without a word spoken the entire set, Secret Chiefs 3 maintained an intense stage presence. The band anonymized themselves with monk robes, except for violinist/guitarist Timb Harris who covered his face with some kind of sheer keffiyeh, which added to the mystique of the performance. Spruance often seemed to channel Rasputin as he cavorted around the stage, dancing ecstatically.

The sound made its own ecstatic dance, bouncing from Gypsy/Arabic to progressive, from dreamy to intensely angular, from soothing melody to prickly experimentation. Secret Chiefs 3 reflected some of the plasticity of Mr. Bungle, but directed into a more mystical space. Like some of Frank Zappa or Robert Fripp's compositions, the music had a very intellectual vibe. Despite being clearly directed, Secret Chiefs 3 regularly triggered a more chaotic mental response.

Dengue Fever
I was excited to finally get the chance to catch Dengue Fever's live show. I've loved their albums for years and enjoyed their performances on Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, but it's always better to be in the same room, where anything can happen. As I mentioned before, I got to sit down with bass player Senon Williams and keyboard player Ethan Holztman before the show for an interview, which just confirmed for me how open and genuine this band is.

I snapped a shot of the setlist, but that was a waste of time. Reading my mind, the band ignored the list and kicked off with an intense version of my favorite song, Seeing Hands. The moody raga groove served as a good transition from Secret Chiefs 3 to Dengue Fever's musical base.

Lead singer Chhom Nimol served as the centerpiece, showing off her flexibility as a performer. Her singing was solid, ranging from strong pop to haunting vulnerability. But the surprise was how adroitly she adapted her persona to match the piece. One song might cast her as a naive ingenue, but later she'd build intense focus with a meditative chant. Another song might show off her saucy, playful side. And yet, between songs, she'd humbly thank us for our attention, exuding the joy she takes in this music.

Gathered around Nimol, the rest of the band brought a zen focus to their playing. From the snaky, bass-heavy spy theme groove of Durian Dowry to the ultra retro-pop of Tiger Phone Card, every song had its place. Where the earlier bands offered some sharper edges, Dengue Fever set a heartbeat groove that made their set a perfect finish for the night. Their emphasis on engaging the audience was also a key element, whether it was Nimol urging us to sing along or Senon Williams sharing a comment with someone in the front row.

Speaking of Williams, during our interview, he talked about his roots as a teenaged punker and that showed in his stage presence. He stalked the stage from side to side, constantly pulling the other members together. One minute he'd high jump off the drum riser, then he'd mirror guitarist Zac Holtzman or maybe just pogo along with the beat. His manic energy made him the electron to Nimol's nucleus.

The rest of the band may not have run around as much, but they held their own on stage, sharing their enthusiasm and focus. The interplay between Zac's guitar grooves and Ethan's organ fills created a great balance. Paul Smith's drumming was tight as he pushed a few of the arrangements a little faster than the studio versions. The only missing element was David Ralicke's horn. He'll be catching up with the band later in the tour.

At the time, I wasn't quite sure about the mix of bands on this billing; they seemed fairly different in character and musical approach, but in retrospect I can see the arc. Action Friends seemed to interleave two or three songs at a time, while Secret Chiefs 3 seemed to hop stylistically from song to song, setting a different granularity. Dengue Fever shifts this idea into genre melding, swirling the musical elements together. Their blend of retro surf, psychedelia, soul, and Cambodian rock had an extra spark in live performance that reflected a band having as much fun as we were.

More photos on my Flickr.

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