The Very Best
Black Nature (Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars)
May 31, 2010
Better than: What could be better than The Very Best?
Seriously. When the music world gets tired of arguing over M.I.A. and her dubious authenticity, it oughta pause and regard with proper awe another, possibly more genuine (and certainly more fun) third-world hip-hop/dance/pop outfit: The Very Best, the promising project of, mainly, Malawian-born singer Esau Mwamwaya and British production team Radioclit. As the sweaty show last night at The Independent demonstrated, the tropical blast of The Very Best pretty much deserves its swaggering moniker. And how doth such seemingly simple vocals-over-beats justify such effusive praise? Let me count the ways:
1) During the opening track, Radioclit's Johan Hugo sent out axis-tilting bass that made the Indy's meaty PA shudder -- and got the crowd smiling, stomping and swaying their hands in the air. Quite simply: beefy hits evoking imminent destruction = sonic joy = not common = hell yeah.
2) "Julia." A highlight of this mixtape-loving-group's first proper album (2009's Warm Heart of Africa) has tense synths unwind over a simmering low-end pulse, upon which Esau loads smiling choruses sung as usual in Chichewa, save for the triumphant chorus: "Julia! Julia!"... And the (sampled) synths burbled far down below, building up to a climax almost too celebratory for a Monday night. (But a fitting herald of summer.)
3) When not singing, Esau leans back and rolls his arms like he's rolling in a Cadillac, riding 'Clit's rhythms like they're some waterfall of ecstatic luxury, sporting a giant grin, potbelly, sunglasses, backwards cap, custom T-shirt ("TTT/VVV/BBB") and a hip-hop stance that let's you know he knows he's the man. He dances like he's the man, sings like he's the man, and makes music out of towering beats that only the man (and maybe the man's DJ) could handle. So he is pretty much the man.
4) Dancers. Two rubbery gals from Londontown writhing and bouncing and flailing themselves to the blast at either end of the stage with sweaty-bellied six-packs, gleaming teeth, hurricane hair and a positive spunk amply physicalizing the holy-shit-I-gotta-dance-now-ness of The Very Best's maelstrom. The show didn't need any more bounce, but theirs didn't hurt. Also, it was pretty cool when Esau invited fans to dance onstage.
5) Hype Man whose name we didn't catch: Dude can rap. Dude can sing. Dude has fatty dreadlocks and a stage life to rival Esau. Dude belongs.
6) The inflatable palm tree. A classic stage prop of The Very Best, the plastic tree got a solid crowdsurfing session during the last few songs. "In Australia, we threw it into the crowd and it was a big fight," Esau told the crowd last night. In San Francisco, the tree was hugged. Someone tried to take it outside at the end, but security stopped them.
7) Radioclit's Johan Hugo plying the crowd with free alcohol. First, the British DJ handed a Heineken to the girl who was invited onstage for her birthday. Then he unlatched four more and passed them out to the cute girls in front. Then Hugo distributed four more green beers to other grinning fans in front. Then he uncorked a bottle of Mondavi red and turned it loose on the crowd, members of which chugged and passed and then chugged more of the tasty wine (was it a merlot?) for a good while. Then Hugo passed away four more Heinekens. We don't know the reason for the generosity, but we ain't complaining.
8) A setlist that consisted of the best of The Very Best. For "Kamphopo," Esau and the hype man let the crowd sing the intro into their wireless mics, evoking the song's absurdly cute video. There was a heavy, booming preview of the new mixtape, which is due out in October. There was "Warm Heart of Africa," their collaboration with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig (whose voice was prerecorded, but still).
Then the encore began with Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There" (a/k/a the Free Willy song), which filtered in after the room was darkened. Esau asked for the audience to hold up lighters and phones to set the ambiance, but that try collapsed after two minutes due to technical difficulties with Radioclit's tables. So The Very Best chuckled, shrugged and asked to start it again -- lights down, phones up -- and then, over almost five minutes, layered each sonic brick into the King of Pop's arm-swaying anthem. For the absolute closer, they did "Tengazako," their sweet-sounding remix of M.I.A.'s seemingly unbeatable classic "Paper Planes." A wine-drunk fan yelled at Radioclit for more as the crew walked offstage for good, reprising the hype man's call of "The Very ... Best!" back at one of its masterminds. Hugo looked sad that he couldn't deliver.
By the way: Caught just the last two booming reggae numbers of openers Black Nature. This band wore its grooves instead of simply playing them, which is a good sign. Also, Disco Shawn, the night's offstage DJ, dished seductive beats that got the crowd dancing in between live sets. That's an achievement.
Ultimate verdict: Sure, The Very Best often just remix already-excellent pop songs, adding huge bass and Esau's gleaming, soulful African pipes. That's about all M.I.A. does anymore. I'll take their giddy authenticity over her posed profundity any day.
Follow us @SFAllShookDown