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Issue: January 2012

So what did you do for Thanksgiving?

What I did was attend the Vietnamese pop concert that was held at the grand-style, fabulously palatial Horseshoe Casino's 'Showroom' auditorium in Elizabeth, IN.

This event was an event: sold out, of 800 seats (and management confided to me that they had to turn an additional hundred disappointed, would-be attendees away).

Speaking of hundreds, something that became clear from this 100% Vietnamese, yet 100% American concert is that Elvis Lives. Has to. Or his spirit lives – in Vietnam. That's the only explanation. (Viva Las Vegas!)

It was the grandeur, the glitter, the showmanship, the all-celebrity lineup of singers and musicians (all of whom are famous in their country of origin), and the fantasy capitalist experience of all that opulence and wealth, over and above the strong American musical influence throughout, that put one in mind of a later-Elvis milieu.

Still, this venue — the casino, I mean — is affordable and varied: Horseshoe served traditional American turkey dinner, with all the trimmings at their Paula Deen buffet restaurant (just $25 per). Or, offering a concert-matching alternative, an elegant, new Vietnamese restaurant, the Pearl (so not just Elvis, maybe, but Joplin, too?), had just recently opened in a quiet corner right outside the entrance to the casino itself.

The largely Vietnamese crowd itself was an eye-treat. These are extremely stylish folks. The effect of milling around was – hardly surprising, given that French is a major element in their culture — somewhat Parisian.

And of course, music-wise, who I came to see were the artistic descendants of the Paris By Night music variety show videos starting in 1983 and which continue to this day. From all the political repression in Vietnam emerged a group of very pro-democracy, pro-American R&R artists who made statements, both implicit in their work and explicit in their publicly expressed opinions, that were critical of their government (artists being given to making such unpopular political stands) and that placed them at risk.

They therefore expatriated to the Westminster, or 'Little Saigon,' area of Los Angeles and proceeded to get back at the regime by becoming world-renowned, albeit through the black market — but that is starting to lessen.

And highly sophisticated in their artistic and musical presentation. This genre has come a long way. From the perhaps-a-bit-sappy pieces that it started out producing two-and-a-half decades back, they have evolved a sound that is fully contemporary – as fully fiery as that of any Western band, but fully successfully intertwining American rock with Vietnamese musical style and tradition – therefore fully international, in other words.

As the most apparent result of this Western-Oriental fusion, it reverses the American R&R musical emphasis on music at the expense of vocals, Vietnamese pop, in contrast, places a non-instrument-playing vocalist at the center of things and as the star of the performance. Dance moves figure prominently, and — as with Elvis' jump-suits and Joplin's big hats – dramatic outfits definitely count. As different vocalists come and go throughout the evening, a single band remains onstage and backs all of them up.

To get an idea of where these artists' evolution has taken them, it's as if the American standards singers of the '40s lived on, eternally youthful and beautiful, and, when it came along, embraced rock 'n' roll.

This form of music's stand-out feature is that it's melodic. Being so vocalist-centric, it never takes the path of the free-form or experimental instrumental, as with American-born jazz or (acid rock-born) 'hard rock.' Instead you end up with the continuation of (or return to) the Western 'standard songbook' generation's elegance, grace, beauty, and passion (and maybe lyricism? — I don't know — all but one song was done in Vietnamese) – but always identifiably structured around those characteristic tone-intervals that let you know this music is at base Vietnamese.

I heard the Liberty Band — delivering classic R&R rhythm and speed, seamlessly interspersed with pieces we would, in an earlier era, have taken the floor and slow-danced to.

The lineup opened with turquoise-gowned, well-toned, fast-paced Anh Minh. Wow. Hot. Sensational moves. Kind of left me stunned. I could unintentionally see up her dress without trying to where I was sitting.

Second up, in sweet pink, was Ngoc Huyen. As the local Louisvillian, but-in-Vietnam-backup guitarist Long Phanh Nguyen stood up, seemingly spontaneously, and joined the party onstage with her, her renditions turned more traditional-sounding and meltingly slowed things back down from the simmer-to-boil temperature Minh had achieved. About this time one is feeling, as we would have once said, 'groovy.'

The most self-consciously Americanized performance of the evening came from male vocalist Mai Tien Dung, who, with a trick-of-the-light sculpting of hairstyle and blonding of his hair in front, created the almost-perfect illusion that he was ethnically European. His was a serious gets-the-blood-pumping set.

He ended with a number that invoked, if not imitated, the pounding edge of an American rocker, with lyrics done in English ('Ha! Ha! Ha!/You are my heart/You are my soul . . .') – almost, it seemed just to prove he could do it. Much of the identifiably Vietnamese strain in VN pop was sacrificed in this particular song – but its popularity was attested by the fact that it was at this point that female enthusiasts jumped up out of the audience and beelined down front to dance in the aisles. It was fun, no denying – but I almost regretted it. I mean, let the American rockers do purely American rock – they've had that musical form sewn up for a long time. The cultural uniqueness of what Mai was giving us earlier in his set was what more did it for me.

The evening's third diva, who was outfit color-coded in white with light-gold sparkly stuff, that together blended into this sort of magically elusive, now-you-see-it, now-you-don't cream color, was Ho Hoang Yen. Unexpectedly rhythm and bluesy. Of course in these set-ups the vocalist (because that is the orchestrated focus of one's attention) gets a lot of the credit for what the band is doing, but one heard here strains of, if not harmonica, then the harmonica-like; with rippling runs up and down the steel guitar, and those Vietnamese, sweeping-up-and-down bells – a devastating effect, because such an unusual and unexpected combination.

I could not tell what words she was singing – the Vietnamese language barrier adds an element of the enigmatic to these performances for the Western listener – but they sounded not unlike what one might characterize as 'plaint': something querulous, sad-sounding.

About this time during the evening the audience heard, musically, from most-famous-performer-of-them-all MC singer/songwriter Nam Loc (Nguyen). Older than the others, his interpretations were less melded into contemporary Western styles but were perhaps for that reason at least as interesting. From being a refugee to this country 35 years ago, he has become an award-winning political and refugee activist in California and is as highly respected for his personal as for his musical achievements. You can read more about this Vietnamese pop great at: http://mymdherbs.com/D_1-5_2-59/nam-loc.html

Other performers featured were a comic duo – the dapper Dan Vanscin and goofier Vao Chung– who (while, not being able to understand Vietnamese, I think I can guess from their body language and facial expressions that they may have been giving us two guys engaged in a singing contest (ranging from "Beat It" to "Frère Jacques"), each taking turns disparaging the other) I can at least say were appreciatively received by the nearly-all Vietnamese audience. If I did get it right as to what was in the main going on, that says a lot about their mimic skills.

Giving a regrettably shortened performance, due to time overage, the last to come on for the evening was Lam Nhat Tien. Of all of these, he relied the least on Elvis- and Vegas-style visuals – he appeared simply attired in black suit and white shirt – but he sounded the most like Elvis. In fact, his second number was as if Elvis, in his dreamier, more romantic moments ("I Can't Help Falling In Love WIth You," not "Jail House Rock") were doing a song in Vietnamese.

The ladies found him 'heartbreaking.' As for my own reaction, I can certainly agree that his work has a ballad-like tonality to it – you could almost hear "The House of the Rising Sun" resonating in one, but, again, strikingly Vietnamese also, due to features like those little swimmy bells – and in moments his work has almost a Western cowboy feel to it – horses-across-the-plains stuff, with those Western cowboy musical minors.

Next time, Horseshoe Casino, don't cut ANYBODY as good as these guys short!!

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