all words: William Alberque
all AMAZING photos: Katherine Gaines
This has been an incredibly busy couple of months for music lovers. There have been more great shows in the past four months than I can remember in all of last year (30 since January) – and there’s still more to come, with Lykke Li, Florence, Friendly Fires, the Naked and the Famous, Glasvegas, Sleigh Bells, Beirut, and Junior Boys all before the end of June.
Zola Jesus at Red Palace Tuesday night was probably the best show during this already incredible year. I had a rough idea of what to expect, having seen Zola Jesus open for the XX and Warpaint last year. Seeing lead singer and new-goth icon Nika Danilova goes through her paces on a big stage, though, I could only wish that I could see her in an intimate setting, playing as long as she liked. I feared, though, that with songs as incredible as her most recent Stridulum and Valusia EPs, she’d graduate right from opening at the 930 to headlining at the same venue.
Fortunately for me, the gap between Zola Jesus’s staggering quality and their fame was just large enough to play to an 80% capacity Red Palace. It’s bizarre that the venue hadn’t sold out – most of the tour was. I was waiting nervously for them to take the stage. Nika came out to help set up, aiming a projector at the band from the front of the stage, while the rest of the band set up the drums and three sets of keyboards. Holy god, one of them’s a double-decker! The band exit, and we wait.
The lights dim, the projector switches on, with geometric patterns and colors flashing on the diminutive figure (seriously, she’s about 4’ 10”) of Danilova, swathed in luridly-colored red fabric as the opening soothing keyboard swells of “Trust Me” fill the room.
She pokes her shock-white-dyed blond hair out from under her shroud to sing the first set of her beautiful, romantic lyrics “Trust me – I know that you are afraid, but I’m here.” Many of the songs in her set are about love, fidelity, trust. To underline the point, the tribal drums and overwhelming icy keyboards of “I Can’t Stand” follow quickly: “It’s not easy to fall in love, but if you’re lucky you just might find someone…it’s gonna be all right…”
I am pretty overwhelmed by the start of their set. The use of three keyboards (the double keyboard player is also using a synth pad) combined with live drums – replacing the drum machines on the record – makes for an incredibly lush and full sound. By the end of “I Can’t Stand,” I don’t know what to do with myself. Jump and down and whoop and holler uncontrollably? Hug strangers? Clap wildly? All three? The Siouxsie comparisons are downright lazy (see also: hey, that band uses a bass, they must sound like Joy Division!). This is more Diamanda Galas territory, but with each song containing massive pop hooks that could hold up entire bands’ careers. Massive.
Danilova is a star, though, simply put. Born in Arizona, raised in Wisconsin, she is disarmingly charming and unassuming in person. On stage, however, she’s an animal. She prowls the stage, pacing the length of it and kicking and twitching as though the songs are too big for her, overpowering her tiny frame. And the voice – more shattering than the banks of keys and thumping drums – fills the room to the point that I am not even aware of the rest of the room. Numbly I run to the bar to get enough drinks to not have to move from front and center for the whole show. I try to hold it together to get through the set. This is powerful stuff.
ZJ run though most of the two recent EPs, avoiding all the earlier releases (which is actually quite a good thing – not much there, there). Two new songs grace the set – “Seefeel” (is it actually named for the eponymous band?) and “Avalanche” and they are both incredibly ace. The set continues to build in power, with “Tower,” “Stridulum,” and “Sea Talk” working up to the gorgeous “Run Me Out.” The beautiful build of that song, climbing to level after level of astonishing emotion, belies the youth of Danilova. Her operatic training is clear, though, with a commanding voice that veers between classical and…I don’t know – almost like a polished R&B delivery that would make Lauryn Hill nod appreciatively.
It’s all leading up to “Poor Animal,” probably my favorite song so far. It is far more uplifting-sounding than anything else ZJ has done. I imagine this one at a festival, with a crowd bouncing to the infectious, irresistible energy of the song. And Danilova is a whirl of motion throughout, powering the song, powering the audience. After the set, I asked if she was looking forward to playing it for a festival audience – there are several coming up for them over the next few months – and she looked at me like the idea of playing again made her too happy to consider the impact of individual songs. So unassuming…
The new song, “Avalanche,” comes next, but it’s the next one that makes me lost it. “Night” is a towering achievement – the kind of song that entire sub-genres of goth would have loved to make but never did. I think it is, again, the love and optimism that infuses the song – “in the end of the night, we’ll be together again…and I can be with you” – that makes it rise above the typical goth fare and makes this several thousand shades of awesome. The Test Department-inflected “Manifest Destiny” closes the set, but there’s no way we’re going quietly.
The audience is a storm of voices shouting, demanding that they come back. They oblige, and Danilova is disarmingly sweet and shy-looking as she promises us one more. It’s a song from her autotuned side-project, Nika and Rory – I think it was “Do You Wanna Be.” I’m a bit sad that it isn’t “I’m Not Going Anywhere.” That song is astounding (listen to it on the MySpace page), but this will definitely do. We applaud until our hands are red and wait patiently to have Danilova sign merch and chat. Sometimes, DC is a wonderful place to be. Thank you, Red Palace.
Oh, the opening act, the Naked on the Vague – not really my thing. More self-consciously goth sounding, with atonal female vocals (with a heavy Australian accent between songs), often deliberately out of key with the otherwise solid postpunk/goth instrumentation. It’s dark, repetitive, unrelenting, pounding sound. I suppose if I were younger and wanted to show that I like atonal dark things because I’m all dark and mysterious, I would be well into it. But, I’m not. I am an unabashed fan of beautiful songs, and ZJ has that in spades. Ah well.