October 11, 2011
7th St. Entry, Minneapolis
It appears the novelty is already starting to wear off for fans of Zola Jesus, who turned out in droves last summer to sell-out her show at the Entry and returned in much more modest numbers this time around. The Merrill, Wisconsin native did her best to connect with the crowd last night, but aside from one small, spastic dance freakout at the end of her set, the set failed to ignite.
Part of the problem, to be sure, was that the sound in the Entry was mixed way too quietly. To make sure it wasn't my concert-weary eardrums finally giving out on me, I asked around and heard from more than a few concertgoers that the sound simply wasn't loud enough to pack a punch, an unfortunate circumstance for an artist who relies so heavily on bass quakes and synth drones to propel her moody electro-goth music.
But there was also something monotonous about the band's delivery, and about the vocal melodies of Zola Jesus (born Nika Roza Danilova) in particular. To be fair, I'd never seen ZJ before and have only spent a modest amount of time with her records, so it's entirely possible she was having an off night, but her voice seemed capable of delivering only one dynamic -- low and loud -- and lacked any kind of expression, inflection, or range. Her lack of vocal control or nuance led to more that a few off-key notes, which only added to the unsettling nature of the performance.
Which isn't to say that ZJ's set was completely lacking in redemptive qualities. The four backing musicians expertly crafted swaths of echoing cave sounds and oceanic whirs, trading off between having three separate musicians play synthesizers (something I don't think I'd ever seen before) and having one of the synth players join in with the drummer on a set of electronic pads. That attention to synthesized sounds made for a dizzying tapestry of backing music and complemented Danilova's booming, harrowing voice.
The visuals, too, were quite impressive, Danilova swirling around in a gauzy white poncho and flapping her arms dramatically, an array of bright lights swathing the band in a cool glow. Though Danilova seemed somber and stoic throughout most of the set, it was fun to finally see her let loose in a fit of flailing limps and bleached blonde hair during the final song of the main set, which turned her into spastic white blur. The band, too, finally let loose in those final moments, crescendoing past their chilling cave vibe into something noisier.
Personal bias: I went into the show expecting to be dazzled, mostly because I'd heard so many flattering things about her style and her music, but sometimes these things just don't pan out the way you anticipated they would. I was bored.
The crowd: A modest congregation of mostly twentysomethings.
Overheard in the crowd: Everything! You could hear everyone's conversations. At one point a man telling a story at the bar actually drowned out Danilova's voice from where I was standing, which was just odd.
Random notebook dump: Keep in mind that Danilova is still young (she just finished college at UW-Madison) and Zola Jesus is just getting started. I really like that she's not afraid to be weird. That is a rarity in performers these days.