Zola Jesus at the Billiken Club, April 14: Review
Zola Jesus/Cult of Youth
April 14, 2011
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, an artist creates a moment, a fleeting second of absolute perfection that utterly crushes you the minute it's over. At least until the instant replay kicks in or until you get back in your car and turn that fucker back on and all the way up. Zola Jesus (Russian American chanteuse Nika Roza Danilova) was responsible for at least one of those moments last night, and it was a big one.
Cult of Youth's performance was transporting; by turns Sean Ragon sounded like a drunken solider leading downtrodden troops into battle and a hacked off sailor (also drunk) plotting a mutiny against an oppressive captain. Political and religious themes abounded, but the grandiose, ozone-groping sound of the records was rendered earnestly and simply. Previous exposure to the band's noxious melange of folk, punk and New Wave conceits aids in digesting its live performance, or at least keeps the listener from immediately writing them off as a Celtic punk band. Ragon's empassioned delivery and unhinged vocal style drove the action, but there was no shortage of trenchant grooves from the rhythm section. Buttery violin melted over ominous bass and well-placed, often stampeding percussion. It wasn't everyone's cup of tea (or dirty, chipped mug of whiskey), but the Brooklyn band was faultess.
Quietly wincing synthesizer announced Zola Jesus. Her voice rang through the room before anyone laid eyes on the diminutive Danilova, barely clearing five feet tall in thick soled black boots. She sang as she wended through the crowd, belting out "Trust Me" before taking the stage. The opera-trained singer engaged every muscle group, forcefully folding herself in half to wrench more sound from her diaphragm or tearing the air with her hand like a gospel singer on Sunday. Even when she was crouched on the floor, her voice and presence were commanding.
Prowling like a caged animal, Danilova never stood still and could've used about twenty more feet of stage to patrol--had she been strapped to a gurney in a straitjacket, she would have found a way to move. "Tower" was a stygian journey into the depths, and industrial strength electronic and live percussion bolstered Danilova's centrifugal vox. The huge drums hammered while the trio of keyboardists punched out lofty church choir samples and synth swells on "Stridulum." One of those aforementioned magic moments was during "Run Me Out," when she emitted a belt worthy of Whitney Houston on "I Will Always Love You."
She addressed the numb but appreciative crowd exactly once, breathing a tremulous "Thankyousomuch" before the caustic drums battered back to life. "Night" and "Manifest Destiny" closed the 45-minute set, the former predictably inky and beautiful, the latter containing about two minutes of utterly arresting catharsis.
She practically dove into the crowd and snaked through it while shredding her vocal chords with "How could we survive? Yeah I'll worry about, worry about the kids." She unleashed her full, terrifying power like she was headlining La Scala instead of hidden in the middle of a bunch of Americans in a cafeteria/venue. The final minute was ragged and gutting, full of electronic dark matter that was inconsequential under the blackened albatross that was her voice. She screeched the last lyric with all the might contained in her tiny frame, and then she bolted out of the room at a full run. The music stopped, and the stupefied crowd looked around, waiting for someone to explain what the hell just happened. Zola Jesus happened.
Cult of Youth:
Cold Black Earth
I Can't Stand
Run Me Out
Props to YouTube user imstld for great vids and prompt uploads.