Concert Review: Zola Jesus

The young, operatically inspired pop singer Zola Jesus wins you over by sheer passion and power

”We’re having technical issues,” singer Nika Roza Danilova, who performs as Zola Jesus, told the packed crowd at U Street Music Hall toward the beginning of an hour-long set last Thursday night, Feb. 16.

”You sound great,” a fan shouted in response – and so it was. Aside from a little feedback and a few flat notes from the keyboard player, it was difficult to discern any technical problems among the concert’s three instrumentalists, most notably including a violinist.

And Danilova’s voice is something of a modern marvel: An operatically inspired instrument that rattles and hums like her wailing British New Wave/dramatic-pop predecessors, from Kate Bush to Siouxsie Sioux. From her voice to her electronic/orchestral pop sound, the young, blond-haired, Wisconsin-reared American straddles the accessibility line between Portishead and Florence + The Machine – though adopting a last name fraught with religious overtones might keep her from the mainstream.

Her show at U-Hall, which was a rare, welcome co-presentation by the venue in tandem with the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat, was Jesus’s ”third and a half” time performing in D.C. (The half was apparently as an opening act.) And if you didn’t surface from the subterranean club after the show entirely enraptured, well, it was of little fault to Jesus or her band. In fact, Jesus sounded almost exactly the same live as on record – something of a recording and performing feat. She even launched the show with the first two tracks from last year’s captivating Conatus, and proceeded to perform the set’s other nine tracks as well. Though the never-ceasing intensity to her music can get overwhelming, the only real fault I have with Jesus is the fact that her blustery delivery and echoing electronic embellishments make her equally dramatic lyrics largely indecipherable. You often don’t know what she’s saying or what she means – even as she wins you over through sheer passion and power.

U-Hall’s acoustics are top-notch, which is a big reason why in just two short years it’s become one of D.C.’s best venues for DJ-led dance parties. But it turns out, at least in its present configuration, it’s not quite as ideal for concerts. The stage platform is only an inch or two off the ground, lower than even the DJ booth at the opposite end of the space. And with the stage set up in an alcove at one end of the narrow, rectangular room, it can be a challenge to see the performers the shorter or farther back you are. There are no sightlines from the side, especially since, due to bar flow and general safety, the security staff strictly forbids fanning up front.

But even if forced to use your ears more than your eyes, a concert often confirms or enhances your impression of an artist — and hearing Zola Jesus at U-Hall certainly did that. Jesus garnered polite, occasionally even praiseworthy, responses from a mostly professional crowd, with a healthy dusting of gays and assorted alternative/indie types.

It’s all a promising start for someone who, it seems critical to note, is only 22-years-old.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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