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words & photos by Benjamin Lozovsky
It's hard to be The Very Best without showing up. That's a lesson Esau Mwamwaya learned the hard way, but one he was eager to make up for as his burgeoning new project with English production duo Radioclit made their return to New York City Wednesday night at Santos Party House. They last properly played NYC in July and two recent no-shows at scheduled performances in the New York area increased the anticipatory grumblings among their fans. First there was a much-awaited appearance at this year's CMJ Music Marathon that never materialized, then there was a Halloween night slot at a benefit concert that found the band performing without their singer.
With a typical display of warmth that has categorized his new group's quick rise to prominence however, the Malawian born, London-based vocalist was roundly apologetic for his previous absences. "I know people were disappointed," said Mwamwaya after the show. "I personally feel so bad for not coming for CMJ, but what could I have done? I had no choice."
It was a sentiment Mwamwaya began the set with as well, gregariously humbling himself to a crowd primed to be transported to the group's mythical continent of wildebeests and wilder beats.
Before that however, local band Sleigh Bells continued to intrigue ears as they performed a quick, energized opening set. Emerging as one of the most-discussed groups of CMJ 2009, the currently label-less, album-less duo appeared equal parts polished and chaotic throughout their performance; as guitarist Derek Miller stood steadfast, pumping out harshly overdriven guitar riffs with ear-bleeding precision, singer Alexis Krauss ran, jumped, and cavorted around the stage in a pleasant mess of contorting, shiny-black spandex. Layers of searing octaves coupled with jingling melodic textures, demonstrated that the band's gentle moniker is only partially misleading. Despite the heaviness of the sound, theirs is a playful viciousness, waiting to be fully developed - or perhaps just properly recorded.
Sleigh Bells' categorically New York cool sound then gave way to the global treat that is The Very Best. Any doubts of how the largeness of their music might translate into a dance club performance backed by completely pre-recorded instrumentation were quickly mitigated as the group brought the best of the savannah to the booming sound system of Santos.
After an evocative sample rose up through Mwamwaya's introduction, it tapered off quickly, giving way to an Earth-trembling bass line joined with an equally ground-shaking African tribal-inspired call. Like a Lion King-Lil' Wayne love child, the music engineered by Radioclit member Johan Karlberg (his partner Etienne Tron was missing from the show) and sung by Mwamwaya rang out with a jubilant aggressiveness.
Two numbers in, the duo was joined on stage for their song Julia by a pair of mascara-draped, punked-out dancers. The brightly outfitted dancers brought forth a body-gyrating infusion of as much hip-hop flavor and traditional African dance as the music itself. Heavy handclaps and an earnest plea by Mwamwaya to the unknown woman of the song title were as gently urging as they were low-down and epic. Later, a Malawian sing-along ensued during Kamphopho, another song from The Very Best's recently released album The Warm Heart of Africa. The crowd chanted in Chichewa (the native language of Malawi) as the confusingly irresistible combination of calypso steel drums and astronomically heavy low-end blasted through the venue.
With such a pervasive momentum tumbling off the stage, the band decided to skip the formalities of an official encore and perform one last song right after a quick pause; they came with the moto (fire in Malawian), rocking a sped-up, club-ready version of the new album's eponymous first single, which proved to be an audience favorite. Two songs and a performer-encouraged crowd stage rush later, the band and dancers were thoroughly spent, having made the most of their New York redux in the subterranean club confines.
After the performance, Mwamwaya displayed his gratitude for the reception his band received from the fervent crowd. "...People responding like this, that's so amazing," he said with a grin that would make the Cheshire Cat question his happiness. "I think this is the biggest crowd we ever had."
more pictures below...
The Very Best...