At some point during the Very Best’s set at Santos last night, Johan Hugo — the half of production team Radioclit that made the trip overseas with the human manifestation of sunshine that is Esau Mwamwaya — said something like “Yo I think all the journalists are up front, we need the fans to come up and get wild up here!” (I think he made it sound cooler, or at least more Swedish accented; probably both.) There were two ways to know he was right: the ring of photographers creating a flashbulb barricade up front, with a secondary line of lots of white haired dudes holding notebooks. Then again, this bill was built to spill ink: Between the visa issues that kept Esau out of the country during CMJ, and the lack of any real business/promotional infrastructure for opening Band To Watch Sleigh Bells — making the Brooklyn duo’s under-attended but modestly epic sets during that same week the ones people kicked themselves most for missing — you could understand why more than one person described the vibe in the Santos basement as that of a “showcase.”
Wonky sound levels aside, Sleigh Bells were a sensation, again. And there’s nothing flukey about it — nothing that some minor stage-sound issues could mar — because there are no variables involved with Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss, who certainly come from worlds apart and can’t help but fully inhabit them. If there’s anything flukish about Sleigh Bells’ sudden ascent it’s just the way in which their respective worlds are so stunningly combustible when collided. Just that way in which Derek Miller’s hardcore-honed guitars, slicing with a razor’s edge through clipped beats so pushed into the red they crackle, unable to contain their own stark power, are a perfectly scuzzy, future-pop foil for Krauss, who can coo, snarl, syncopate, and sing it for straight up teen pop like if Karen O came up listening to riot grrl, Top 40, and Santigold shit in equal measure.
But what makes it compelling live isn’t just this stew of sounds that, frankly, is a signifier for the shape of pop music to come, but how their polar extremes in sound translate live. Derek played in Poison The Well; he knows how to be onstage. Alexis, on the other hand, just seems like she was born on it. Hip shimmies on the Funkadelic sampling “Ring Ring,” hair whips on the heavier tracks, leaned forward in crowd confrontation or pulled back with a tambourine when not. These moves aren’t new, but a star can make them feel that way. Watching Alexis is sorta like that.
I heard Derek track a lot of the guitars to these demos while he shared space in an apartment just down the hall from my own in Williamsburg, methodically crunching out chords as gated as they were overdriven, over and over for hours on end. Those sounds are just one piece, of course, and having seen it all gel during CMJ — the beats and fuzz, Alexis’s vocals and presence, the songs — it’s really clear why everyone’s on their tip: New Yorker, P4K, EW, BV, the Voice ABC News, etc. And some of those people haven’t even seen Sleigh Bells live yet. Which you should absolutely do. The set was six songs, there are five you can find online. (“Holly” was the one you’ll have to wait for the full-length for, whenever that happens. As they’ve said repeatedly, they’re in no rush.) Those demos are all you’ll have for awhile.
It may have felt like a Sleigh Bells show early, but as the room filled up you were reminded, this was the Very Best’s coming out party. (Or at least, theirs, too.) Esau and Johan had backup dancers, dressed and choreographed alike. Theirs were proper routines, a sweet touch to songs that fuse African pop genres I won’t pretend to know to savvy, vibrant beat production by the European production crew Radioclit, whose work in this project is fresh and hip but never overshadows Mwamwaya’s voice — as if something so bright could be darkened by anything at all. Unlike the Very Best’s last stop in downtown NYC, there was no Ezra Koenig (his “Warm Heart Of Africa” part was ably played by a backing track); but there was the third generation “Straight To Hell” sample in “Tengazako,” and there was a big crowd-to-the-stage dance party, and there was a room whose smiles and dances eventually overtook the journalists front row, enough that they were all likely overcome as well.
Great show last night. Thanks to Jessica Amaya for the photos.