It feels like a disservice to Nika Roza Danilova to comment on Zola Jesus’ appearance before acknowledging her vocal prowess, but that’s the first thing that strikes you when seeing the outfit in the flesh.
Her records conjure up an image of a larger-than-life goth priestess, but when she took the stage Thursday night at the U Street Music Hall, the audience was instead met with a petite, almost pixie-like, figure shrouded in white.
The juxtaposition highlights one of the most interesting aspects of seeing Zola Jesus live. On vinyl, particularly their latest release Conatus, they craft lavish dreamscapes that sound damn near otherworldly. While this translates to their performance, there’s another surprising element: the music is just as entrancing, but suddenly approachable.
When listening to Conatus or Stridulum II, it’s hard to imagine Danilova cracking a smile or interacting with an audience. However, during Thursday night’s show, the Wisconsin-born songwriter did just that, from playfully quipping that she had been to D.C. “three and a half times” to sliding off the stage and stepping into the enthralled crowd during “Seekir.” Even the instrumentals, flawless when recorded, served as a reminder that the band is still human. There were a few hiccups, including a few short bouts with technical difficulties and an overpowering, over modulated violin during one number.
This isn’t to say that the evening lacked mystique. Stepping onto a misty stage dotted with eerily glowing cubes, Zola Jesus opened with “Avalanche,” a chilling track off of Conatus and one of the album’s many highlights.
The set went on to draw from a variety of other releases as well, including a powerful rendition of crowd-favorite “Night” off the Stridulum EP and “Poor Animal” from Valusia, which was well received as the closer.
Danilova has been widely praised for her impressive, almost operatic command of her voice, and it was on full display throughout the evening, hitting its zenith with “Shivers,” where she belted out the “I won’t be there” in the chorus with soul-stirring intensity. In addition to her strengths as a singer, Danilova proved to be a surprisingly energetic front woman, at times breaking into a full-on thrash of blonde hair and white.
I never had the chance to see Siouxsie and the Banshees during their heyday. By the time I was able to catch them, it was 2004, and they were well past their prime. I even found myself holding back a few yawns. However, what I was hoping to see from those proto-goth pioneers, I saw Thursday night.
Although already six releases in to their career, Zola Jesus is showing no sign of following suit and turning stale. In fact, judging by their progressively remarkable albums and this strong performance, there’s ample evidence that they’re just hitting their stride. For now though, I’ll be eagerly awaiting Zola Jesus’ fourth and a half trip back to D.C.
Top Photo: Angel Ceballos