We Love Music: Zola Jesus @ U Street Music Hall, 2/16/12

Synth-chamber-electronic songstress Zola Jesus and her band performed to an enthusiastic crowd at U Street Music Hall Thursday night. They were supported by openers Talk Normal, a female experimental rock duo from Brooklyn who are accompanying them on much of their tour. They are in the midst of a US tour before heading over to Europe at the end of March.

This was the third time singer Nika Roza Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, had played in DC. Previously she has toured as on opener for acts including The XX and in Europe toured with Fever Ray. Her music is dark, moody, heavily electronic, with some piano and strings mixed in, with dramatic vocals. At times it brings to mind Massive Attack, other times Fever Ray, even hints of Kate Bush, but Danilova’s vocals are the unique element of her music.

At Thursday night’s show her backing band of drums, synth/keys, and electric violin were all clearly talented musicians, who added energy and depth to the performance, but it was really the vocals that stood out and elevated the sound. Danilova’s stage antics and voice took music that could have been kind of generic, slow-industrial synthpop to an interesting and compelling place.

The stage was set with four glowing white cubes (which could have served well as platforms for the tiny Danilova, who I could see from the second row, but was probably much less visible from farther back in the crowd.), flooded with blue light, and even hazy with fog from a fog/smoke machine. It set a kind of 80s vision of the future ambience, which worked well with the music.

One stand-out track of the evening was “Night” from her 2010 album Stridulum II. The song, dark and slow, was driven by mesmerizing drums, and chilling tremelo from the violin. Another high point was the crunchy, almost industrial, moody “Vessel“, from her latest album, Conatus. Danilova danced around the stage throughout the night, striking sharp poses, even sitting/lying on the stage for most of one song. At one point she even came into the audience, moving amongst the crowd, who were clearly excited by her presence, though no one was really dancing. (The music itself isn’t really danceable unless you do the slow goth lurch.) The set, along with a short encore, was a captivating hour.

Alexia Kauffman

Alexia was born and raised in Arlington, VA. She has been a cellist since age four, and a lover of rock & roll soon after. The first tape she owned was “Make It Big” by Wham, and the first tape she bought was Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and she still loves both. She was a member of local synth-rock outfit Soft Complex for several years, and has recorded with bands including Engine Down and Two if By Sea. By day she works for a non-profit distributing royalties to musicians and labels. She currently plays cello, lap-steel guitar and tambourine in the DC post-folk/Americana band The Torches.

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