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Live review: The Very Best at the Echoplex

July 17, 2009 |  5:20 pm

Verybest400 Naming yourself the Very Best is asking for a thousand and one wisecracks, so let’s get it out of the way: Even if the African-accented blog pop of Esau Mwamwaya and DJ duo Radioclit might not be the very best, it’s still very good. And Thursdaynight at the Echoplex, they validated their bombastic sobriquet with an hour-long dance party before a small but fiercely flailing crowd.

Uniquely a byproduct of the blog era, the story of the Very Best has been repeated on every URL featuring flashing American Apparel banner ads but it bears repeating: Before moving to England in 1999, Malawi-born Esau Mwamwaya had already racked up an impressive resume including stints with the Masaka Band and Malawi’s most famous reggae musician Evison “The Prophet” Matafale. Yet in his new homeland, Mwamwaya found himself toiling in a secondhand furniture shop in East England, a spot serendipitously down the street from the studio of Johan Karlberg and Etienne Tron (DJ Tron), the Mad-Decent affiliated pair better known as Radioclit, remix veterans who have worked with Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, M.I.A. and TV on the Radio.

Their first collaboration, last year’s “Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best,” intuitively understood the vagaries of the Internet age, with the East African crooning in four languages over everything from M.I.A. to Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” to Hans Zimmer’s “True Romance Theme.” From the decision to sing over the year’s hottest songs to the decision to release it for free as a download, the collaboration took its cues from hip-hop mixtapes. With the right infrastructure in place, acclaim spread among blogs and influential tastemakers Pitchfork and the Fader, enabling the group to instantly assemble a fan base without ever releasing a product in stores.

Flash forward a year later and the group’s much-anticipated official debut, “Warm Heart of Africa” is slated for a fall release on Green Owl.

Sometime around midnight Thursday night, Mwamwaya bounds around the Echoplex stage, sweating with a stadium lights smile. He’s singing the album’s title track, a collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. Just months earlier he was stealing Koenig’s Burberry benga beats; now they’ve produced one of the season’s finest summer jams. The head Weekend Vampire isn’t in the room and the album has yet to be released, but the flannel-clad crowd coos along to every word of a song named after Malawi’s tourist slogan. At one point, Mwamwaya asks, “How many of you read blogs?” But the question is redundant — everyone does, or else they wouldn’t be here.

While the hype machine cycle has anointed a slate of young performers ill-equipped to handle the sharp thrust of fame (step right up, Wavves and Crystal Castles), Mwamwaya’s joy at jettisoning the world of dust-covered antique couches is so salient that it swallows the room. Four people rollick onstage — clad in a letterman’s jacket, looking like a long-lost brother to Chris Elliot circa “Get a Life,” DJ Johan Karlberg can’t be contained by his turntables, pumping his fists in celebration, roaring along to the cavernous choruses. A belly-baring dancer looking like a cross between Pam Grier and Betty Davis, circa 1974, gyrates and grinds with a liquidity that suggests her body consistency is 100% cartilage.

Sitting down, a second woman sings back-up, seemingly adrift in the music. Suddenly, she snaps to attention and rises to join her fellow dancer. Following two minutes of frenetic shimmying, she attempts to sit back down, misses her target and crashes to the floor. Rather than be embarrassing, her smile only expands, tacitly explaining that this is one big party and who cares how you look? Mwamwaya, the show’s star, wears a tartan newsboy cap and a polychromatic shirt, alternately dancing and beatifically bellowing to cuts from last year’s mixtape and the forthcoming album.

At times, it veers dangerously close to the world’s greatest Afro-pop karaoke session, but the group’s unalloyed joie de vivre makes the performance infectious. To conclude the set, the Very Best light into “Rain Dance,” and half the crowd storms the stage and everything turns into a Benetton ad gone boogie. The moment is devoid of pretension or calculation — just pure serotonin rush. It’s the best advertisement for blogs since well, ever.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo of Esau Mwamwaya by Tim & Barry