Dengue Fever wowed a crowd of 1,400 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre on Tuesday night with its sublime original soundtrack for Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 silent-film classic The Lost World. The six-piece, L.A.-based combo, which specializes in the exotic sounds of ’60s psychedelic-era Cambodian pop/rock (as heartwrenchingly chirped in her native Khmer dialect by vocalist Chhom Simol), accompanied the film as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
It was an offer too good to turn down, said sweat-drenched guitarist Zac Holtzman, giddy with triumph after the live performance. “He and I convinced our bandmates to go for it,” said Holtzman, pointing at Dengue bassist Senon Williams. “The rest of them were saying, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta record our next album.'”
“It took about a month, getting all the cues just right, but once we loosened up a little, it all fell into place,” added Williams of the band’s striking, one-off performance.
Viewed as a forerunner to 1933’s King Kong, The Lost World is based on a story by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and features amazing, early clay-animation special effects of dinosaurs encountered in the Amazon jungle. Dengue Fever re-created a ’20s Duke Ellington vibe for the opening scenes, set in London. Once the exploration party—Bessie Love as Paula, Lloyd Hughes as Malone and Wallace Beery as Prof. Challenger—reached the Amazon, the band’s trademark exotica was a perfect fit. Like all successful soundtrack music, Dengue Fever—which also features keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, saxophonist David Ralicke and drummer Paul Smith—always complemented the film, never calling attention to itself. At times, you even forgot it was there.
“Sober Driver” from 2008’s Venus On Earth (download):
Maybe it was the pastoral setting and the subtle effects of methane on the brain, or perhaps it was resentment stirred by the anal security guards and the “No Moshing or Crowd Surfing” sign posted in the entrance, but the crew that gathered to watch Spoon and White Rabbit perform at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster was as kooky as a reality-show judges’ panel. All five hipsters from Lancaster were there, mingling with frat kids from nearby Franklin & Marshall College and quite a few older—I mean some of them were pushing 60—fans.
Opening band White Rabbits are similar to Spoon but with double percussion and better bone structure. The Brooklyn-based sextet (whose upcoming album, It’s Frightening, was produced by Spoon frontman Britt Daniel) flaunted their versatility by trading off instruments mid-song, and their calculus-exam faces matched their keyboard-pounding, drum-smacking intensity.
The pungent head-shop odor I smelled when I first walked in quickly gave way to a mixture of sweat and beer once Spoon took the stage. Right in front of Daniel was a huddle of Lilliputians that I gravitated toward for safety and comfort. (I’m 4’1”.) Anyone over 5’6″ who attempted to block our view was harshly expelled by a spiky-haired hispanic chick who seemed to be the head facilitator of the midget brigade. During “Rhthm & Soul,” a pair of Paul Bunyans muscled to the front, their belt loops roughly level with my line of vision.
Spiky-haired chick: “Where do you think you’re going, Kobe Bryant? Get out of here! You’re like 6’10″—you can see from the bar!”
A veteran rock group like Spoon has a predictably well-honed act and a loyal following who’ll always emerge from a show saying, “Dude, that was freakin’ awesome!” While certainly entertaining, during both the Chameleon Club concert and their 2008 show in Philadelphia, the band doesn’t perform its best songs live. You can’t even attribute this phenomenon to obligatory “new stuff” bands play to promote a recent album, because Ga Ga (etc.) came out two years ago. Spoon sent up the crowd-pleasing “The Underdog,” which I think I heard in every movie trailer I saw last year. But where is “Chicago At Night” or “Telamon Bridge”? The set list played it safe tonight.
Spoon’s “30 Gallon Tank (Live)” (download):
White Rabbits’ “The Plot” (download):
Before Ladytron (pictured) came onstage at the Trocadero in Philadelphia on Monday night, I mauled a random kid for a handful of glowsticks, claiming they carry special powers that give me confidence in my dancing ability. A few minutes later, I spotted Jared. Jared had bracelets up to his elbows, a tight, sleeveless turquoise shirt, eyeliner and lip liner and stars tattooed on his face. I immediately ran up to him and handed him my glowsticks.
“Hey, you look like you could use these,” I insisted.
My motive was somewhat selfish, because I was hoping he’d bust out in some crazy figure-eight light show when Ladytron started playing. No such luck. However, the rest of the crowd was eager to get their dance on the minute they stepped in the door. They probably didn’t even need the Faint or Ladytron, judging from the pockets of sweaty bodies bumbling around between sets.
Ladytron, an electro-rock quartet from Europe, upped the ante. Possessing the same intense, androgynous sex appeal as Karen O and Annie Lennox, frontwomen Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo juxtaposed their fluttering vocals with thumping dance beats as they keyed away on antediluvian synths. While the Faint took what seemed like an inordinate amount of time setting up, the energy buildup among the masses was almost tangible. I chewed impatiently on my glowstick. When Todd Fink and the gang finally appeared, it was sweet sensory overload. Video clips of crowds and faces that flashed in the background, billowing smoke, flickering strobe lights and the gangly dancing of the keyboardist made me grateful that I wasn’t: a) on ecstasy, or b) suffering from a latent neurological disorder. Their heavy drum and bass collided with blippy keyboard melodies that inspired my body to flail in an uncoordinated fashion, unable to decide whether to mosh or rave. The Faint played about half the songs from underachieving 2008 album Fasciination but made up for it in the encore with three classics, including “I Disappear.” Plus, you know, I got glowsticks.
Ladytron’s “Black Cat” (download):
The Faint’s “The Geeks Were Right (Does It Offend You, Yeah? Remix)” (download):
Ben Gibbard is a stud now. The famously bookish Death Cab For Cutie frontman known for crooning heartfelt indie-pop lyrics jumped around onstage Tuesday night at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, swiveling his hips seductively in time with his guitar. These are moves he clearly honed since the last time I saw the group four years ago. Death Cab played a healthy mix of old and new: tracks off The Open Door EP (due April 14 on Barsuk) alongside mellow, acoustic palate-cleansers such as “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” and classics like 1998’s “President Of What?”
However, Gibbard and the gang could have taken the night off and left the rest to a guy sitting next to me named Steve. Steve’s air guitar, air drums and air bass rivaled the band itself. He screamed requests during every brief interlude. His font of knowledge about each track was impressive. With sweaty enthusiasm, Steve detailed to those around him the backstory of every third song: “This one is about those fires in California. So sad!” Also, his Death Cab lyrical proficiency was in the 99th percentile.
Ben Gibbard: “Oh crap, I forgot the second verse of ‘Title And Registration.’ Where is Steve?!”
Back onstage, the smoke machines fused with Gibbard’s nostalgia-steeped vocals to carry us all back to freshman year of high school. Murky high-beam lights and trippy strobes united with guitar crescendos and rolling drums. You almost had to close your eyes in order to take it all in (and block out Steve’s flailing).
“Title And Registration” (download):
Three months ago, my editor introduced me to East Hundred’s first full-length, the charismatic breakup soundtrack Passenger, and since then I’ve looped it on repeat every time I’m in the office. At this point, he probably wants to lock me in the mailroom. [Actually, that’s because I want you to do the mail. —ed.] One of the better emerging Philly bands (read MAGNET’s recent profile of the group), East Hundred doesn’t quite square with a local indie-rock taxonomy that includes Dr. Dog, Man Man and the War On Drugs. The quintet branches off with its own brand of catchy, keyboard-laced alternative pop/rock. On Friday night, they played a gig with Seattle products Say Hi and Telekinesis at Philly hipster HQ Johnny Brenda’s.
Unfortunately, even the venue’s superior acoustics couldn’t save East Hundred when a guitar amp went kaput in the middle of the set. After a few minutes of confusion (the audience promptly used the unexpected intermission to grab beers and check iPhones), the group managed to punch out a few more songs before time ran out. What I saw, however, in East Hundred’s salvaged performance stirred my latent childhood dream of singing in a band; it’s similar to how I felt about Gwen Stefani in the late ’90s, before she tried to rap. Diminutive vocalist Beril Guceri exuded an outsized stage presence punctuated by her sweet, wistful vocals.
“It gets very hot up there when something like that happens,” said Guceri after the show, referring to the STD (Supreme Technical Difficulty). Considering the singer’s history of stage fright, she and her bandmates kept their cool as they ironed out the glitch.
“Slow Burning Crimes” (download):