Near the end of Dengue Fever's show Saturday at the El Rey, guitarist Zac Holtzman dedicated a song to his pal Ricky, who Holtzman said was celebrating his birthday in the audience. For most groups, that kind of shout-out doesn't signify much, but for Dengue Fever it served as a welcome reminder of what this sextet is: one of L.A.'s cleverest party bands.
Holtzman and his bandmates, who include his brother Ethan on keyboards and singer Chhom Nimol, play a mind-bending brand of one-world music. After a trip Ethan took to Angkor Wat, the Holtzmans formed Dengue Fever in 2001 as an experiment: What if they made an updated version of the late '60s Cambodian pop that had been inspired by the American music blasting across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War? They recruited Nimol after hearing her sing in a Long Beach nightclub, and the outfit has since released three buzzed-about albums; the latest, January's "Venus on Earth," contains all original material.
Dengue Fever has had a big summer, playing festivals around the globe and signing a record deal in England with Peter Gabriel's Real World label. You can't blame the band's booking agent, then, for scheduling its homecoming at the El Rey, a venue quite a bit larger than the cozy Eastside clubs where Dengue Fever established its well-deserved reputation as a raucous live act.
Still, judging by Saturday's 80-minute set, the group isn't quite ready for the upgrade: Playing to a half-full room, the musicians had trouble mustering the pent-up energy familiar to anyone who's seen Dengue Fever at Spaceland or the Echo -- or at the tiny Cambodian dive the band rocks in "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," a recent documentary about its first tour of Nimol's homeland.
Like any great party band, Dengue Fever requires a party to achieve liftoff; its sweaty intensity isn't a product of spontaneous generation. So although it was well sculpted and rich with detail -- indeed, the El Rey's high-end sound system might have been too precise for a band that thrives on boozy jubilation -- the music Saturday contained no tension and offered no release.
Zac Holtzman's birthday dedication did conjure some of the band's old small-room sizzle, as did a couple of Zac-and-Nimol duets from "Venus on Earth." Both "Tiger Phone Card" and "Sober Driver" used romantic turmoil as an eloquent metaphor for cross-cultural contrast.
And when the guitarist invited a pair of female fans onstage to sing "I'm Sixteen" with Nimol -- bassist Senon Williams called them "Chhom Nimol and the Chhom-ettes" -- it was possible for a moment to imagine you were watching a Dengue Fever show in somebody's backyard in Echo Park.
But then the Chhom-ettes left the stage and we were back in a space filled with too much space. Maybe next time the invitation will reach a few more revelers.