[28 July 2008]
How hot can you stand it?
On this sweaty, hazy night, two bands turned up the psych-grooving heat. Their mostly gringo players channeled American-style 1960s psych, funk, and soul through wildly exotic perspectives. Chicha Libre filtered all-world pop through the Peruvian barrio genre mash known as “chichi,” while Dengue Fever cranked out a sweltering blend of R&B, surf, and Cambodian pop. To swipe a phrase from Dorothy: Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
We know this immediately because the stage looks like Tito Puente’s rec room, crowded with congas, timbales, tom toms, cowbells, and cymbals. There’s a little room left at the side for an accordion, skinny acoustic bass, and a guitar, but not much. The six members of Chicha Libre clamber onto the stage in various kinds of hats, from full-on cowboy toppers to more modest Panamas. Co-founder Olivier Conan is clutching a tiny cuatro, a toy-like guitar that would fit neatly into two large, outstretched hands. Joshua Camp has not brought his hybrid accordion/vox organ tonight, but instead plays a full-fledged accordion.
Chicha Libre began as a band when Conan returned from Peru a few years ago, bearing bags full of cassette tapes containing the underground style known as “chicha.” The songs bubbled like a polyglot stew of influences, incorporating surf, psych, afro-beat, and Peruvian cumbia. Admiring the style became playing the style. Before you knew it, Conan, who co-owns Barbes (a Brooklyn club) with Chicha Libre guitarist Vincent Douglas, was holding regular Monday night chicha sessions at the establishment. Up until recently, you had to travel to New York to hear this music. Safe to say, no one has ever played chicha in Northampton before.
This is a shame, because people seem to really enjoy it. The dance floor remains empty for only a song or two, before a few brave locals (and maybe a ringer or two from Dengue Fever) are twirling and swaying to the group’s percolating beat. There are two drummers in play at all times, one mostly sticking to hand-slapped bongos (or congas?), the other rattling off high staccato runs on a set of timbales and sometimes switching to the snare. It’s all trebly percussion, though, no deep bass drum thump to ground it, so the music seems to float in mid-air, mildly hypnotic, propulsive, but buoyant. Above this, the guitar twines in high, twangy arabesques, flaring out into surf-y tremolo as Douglas manipulates the whammy bar.
The band plays much of its recent album, Sonido Amazonico, during the set. Starting off with the serpentine groove of the title track, they follow it up with the surf and shuffle of “Primavera en la Selva”, one of Conan’s own compositions in this singular style. His contention is that any song can be performed in chichi style, and before the evening is out, the band will have played several of their own compositions, a traditional chichi (“El Borrachito”), a cheese-y euro-synth chestnut (“Popcorn Andino”), and a song by Arthur Lee of Love (“Alone Again Or”, with the Spanish trumpet part picked up on accordion). Funnily enough, the songs sound more like each other than their respective sources.
Chicha Libre closes with “Mi Plato de Barro”, a galloping-rhythmed, western-swaggering rollick that started with an extended yelp and ends with nearly everyone clapping. It was hot before this. It’s hotter now.
The volume—and the funk/R&B/hard-psych vibe—intensifies when Dengue Fever begins to play. They have a more traditional rock band line-up than Chicha Libre, the standard instrumentation of bass, drum kit, guitar, and keyboard, augmented by sax (and on one occasion, trumpet). But the main reason that Dengue Fever is not and will never be an ordinary rock band is Chhom Nimol—the group’s diminutive singer dressed in go-go boots, who sings nearly all their songs in Khmer. This evening, she is decked out in a white polka dotted mini-dress belted in metallic silver, bangle bracelets, and dangling earrings. She sings in a high, vibrato-laced soprano, in a way that, even to amateurs, immediately seems Eastern, foreign, and fascinating. As she sings, she moves her arms and hands gracefully, her fingers opening and closing like flower petals, the wrists curved and straightened like nodding stems.
Chhom Nimol stands in front of a raucous soul band, cranking bass-driven grooves and hard-soul organ-and-sax frenzies. Bassist Senon Williams is a big guy, banging out the pickless bottom on a bass that looks, in his hands, like a ukulele. It doesn’t sound like a ukulele, though…more like the deep satisfying thump behind classic James Brown. To his left Zac Holtzman, one of the band’s two founders, holds down the surf-soul-boogie of the guitar. At the other end of the stage, David Ralicke wails on alto saxophone and at the other founder, Ethan Holtzman, slathers 1960s farfisa over everything. There are dead stops and sudden surges, insistent vamps, and obliterating stomps. At intervals, Williams, Holtzman, and Ralicke jump up and down to the beat, straight-up, straight-down, on the fours, like pogo-sticks. It is hard to catch the song titles, since most of them are in Khmer, but the set draws heavily on Dengue Fever’s new album Venus On Earth. For the uncharacteristically poppy, English-language “Sober Driver”, Zac Holtzman steps up to the mic for some call and response vocals, while Ralicke switches to trumpet.
There is a shift, near the end, when Nimol leaves the stage for a song (you can see her near the door greeting fans and taking photos during the interval), and the band simply grooves for a while in a heavy, mesmeric stomp. Williams and Ralicke glide from one foot to another in time, side-to-side, everything shimmering in cinematic funk like a David Axelrod composition. But Nimol returns to the stage, and there is time for another song in Khmer. Like the audience, she is wreathed in smiles, and as the music ends everyone drifts out into the still steamy night.
How hot could the audience stand it? As hot as it could go.