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Words by Leon, Photos by Miranda

Zola Jesus and her opener, Deradoorian, took me to church Thursday night at the Black Cat.

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Deradoorian, fronted by Angel Deradoorian from the Dirty Projectors, opened the evening with a quality set, which, at times, was heavily ambient, and, at others, had an heir of jaunty playfulness. Deradoorian has a facility in producing layered songs that have an inherent sense of largeness and complexity. I was often behind the power-curve with their songs, finding myself surprised and satisfied with the changes and developments that each new layer would bring. The music featured a solid backbone of looping rhythms and percussion that manifested an air of timelessness, as if some druidic ritual were taking place in front of the audience. Deradoorian provided the solemn call to worship for the fire and brimstone sermon that we were about to experience with Zola Jesus.

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Zola Jesus’ show is all about energy.  She thrashed around the stage, struck tremendous poses, climbed speakers, sang acapella and without the mic in what was a captivating and extremely impressive performance. The atmosphere started someplace heavy and dour, catapulted into raw outbursts of unshackled emotion, and eagerly drifted between the two extremes throughout the night.

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As dramatic as everything felt (she walked on stage with a smoking cup of incense held above her head and placed it on the ground ritualistically), none of it felt forced or out of place. While, at times, it drifted dangerously close to becoming campy, the theatrics never distracted from the quality of music that was being made. Zola Jesus seemed genuinely moved by the music that she and her band created and the crowd ate it up.

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Zola Jesus is a powerful performer. Powerful in the sense that her lyrics can effortlessly shift from thoughtful to empowering to melancholy without losing any of the raw emotion behind them. Powerful in the sense that she and her band put on a pulsing show with each element, from percussion, to horns, to synth, to the vocalist herself performing with unbridled energy. Powerful in the sense that she danced around what appeared to be a mockup of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude like a ballerina from The Rite of Spring and crushed one of her stage decorations beyond repair.

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It’s not often that I hear a voice so large and soulful dedicate itself to such psyche scouring depths. I appreciate the honesty and vulnerability of Zola Jesus, which transcends her lyrics and permeates every aspect of her performance. There is a vulnerability in that kind of honesty, whether revealed by her lyrics or the unencumbered expression in her performance, and it creates a deep sense of intimacy when executed well. As immense as Zola Jesus was, the band that backed her served her well in creating much of the atmospheres that she explored with the audience. The percussionist hammered out thunderous rhythms, the horn maintained a heady supernatural sound that could convey impending doom or transcendent joy with equal ease, and the synth player served to weave the tapestry of all these sounds together to create a unified whole.

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Zola Jesus will be taking her tent revival throughout the US and Europe into the Spring, assuredly creating converts as she goes.

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