What’s indisputable about Zola Jesus (real name Nika Roza Danilova) is that she is clearly talented, and has an obvious passion for what she does. First Avenue’s description of the concert says that Zola Jesus, “is not a band; it is a solo project,” and “Zola Jesus is not a singer; she is a musician.” I’d say anyone watching her Tuesday night show at The Entry would have to agree.
Danilova has a remarkable voice, unwavering and mostly indistinguishable from her recorded efforts, which is a feat considering the power and range she is able to deliver and sustain throughout her set. She has an aptitude for powerful melodies, and anyone who has followed her very successful career trajectory thus far can’t help but get the feeling that she’s just getting started on some winding, Kate-Bush-like career path.
Also like Kate Bush, Danilova as Zola Jesus is as much of a physical presence as a musical one. It seems it’s nearly impossible for reviewers to mention her gigantic voice without referencing her diminutive stature (one source weights her in as 4’11”, 90 pounds). Like something otherworldly yet not quite angelic she thrashed around stage in an oversized white dress that almost made her look like a naughty little kid wearing an adult’s choir robe. As I was writing, “Zola Jesus is so little” I wondered, why exactly is her size relevant to her music? The observation reminded me of something a music blogger friend of mine tweeted once, and I wondered why we don’t have music reviews saying things like, “Cee-Lo’s voice was expectedly powerful for a big fat dude.” The feminist in me thought to exclude this observation all together, but apparently the overly verbose side of me won out this time.
Zola Jesus live is comprised of Ms. Danilova backed by one drummer (Nick Johnson) and three keyboardists (Brian Foote, who also co-produced the most recent album, Conatus, Sean McCann, and Ryan York). Plenty has been said about Danilova’s ability to fill an entire room with sound all by herself, and on that note the stage show definitely could have done with one or two less bored-looking dudes standing in the dark behind her. That said, the guy playing synth, loops, and electronic drums carried most of the weight, and Johnson’s heavy metal drumming style was a good addition—his hair in his face as he pounded the drums mercilessly added an appropriate amount of drama to her show.
For the most part, the only rhythmic parts in her songs happened in the drumming—the melody was only carried in the vocals. That left three keyboardists on stage to basically play cords in drawn-out pads. This might work fine on a record, but live this style became extremely monotonous very quickly, which put all of the weight on Danilova’s shoulders. Sometimes she was up to the challenge, but sometimes her vocals faltered and her monotone delivery failed to impress. Any deviations from this formula were welcome; the addition of a punchier synth bass, or an arpeggiated keyboard line really stood out. However, it was during these detours that the band’s tightness began to fray. For example, occasional Nine Inch Nails-esque electronic loops were an interesting move musically, but the drummer had trouble keeping time with them. When the band lost that tight synch, it appeared Danilova became nervous, her voice fluctuating and missing notes.
Perhaps the most telling song of the night was the encore. The band left the stage for no more than a minute before coming back and delivering a passionate thundering build up, only to be cut frustratingly short at its apex. This could be seen as representative of the whole show—Zola Jesus live has the capability to bring something awe-inspiring, but just doesn’t quite see it through.
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