Review: Zola Jesus at the Larimer Lounge, 2/25/12

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There is an implicit capacity for a show to feel like a "religious experience" -- when the light is minimal and dramatic, fake smoke is pumped into the tight space and the crowd is thick and moving in unison, they inherently take on the look of followers of the performance happening on stage. As Nika Roza Danilova -- better known as Zola Jesus -- sputtered across the Larimer Lounge stage last night, it was clear, regardless of the moniker allusion, that this show was going to be ceremonial.

Opening with "Swords," the sold-out venue of rapt listeners was plugged-in and focused on Danilova. Arms stretched wide, the ghostly vocalist conducted her small band, tossing her fingers forward and back between clenched fist pulses. When the microphone was captured by her hands, the cord wrapped around her forearm like a bracelet as she hunched over the monitors.

With no direct light forced on the singer, she seemed free to roam the darkness, her voice working through the accompanying strings, percussion and synthesized elements. Flashes of blue and short, electrical charges of white came from behind Danilova and her band, but never brightened her face. Point-and-shoots from the crowd did, however, offer temporary bursts of illumination in a haunted house kind of way, as songs like "Night" pushed the haunting feeling further.

"Sea Talk," another entry in the Zola Jesus cannon of sorrowful tracks, let Danilova's voice soar past the harsh percussion. Presented live, songs like "Lick The Palm Of The Burning Handshake" displayed Danilova's work with a pop quality that isn't obvious on first listen; it was an interesting combination of catchiness and disconnect.

Though she didn't speak much to her followers directly through the set, Danilova did break the performance barrier, stepping off the short stage to barrel through onlookers. The sea of bodies parted quickly, unsure of how to react to her bobbing platinum head as it bounded across the floor.

Closing with "Vessel," Danilova joined in on the percussion, turning her back to the audience as she pounded into the fade out. A short break brought the group back on stage for an encore, leaving Danilova at a keyboard with just a violin to accompany her.

While Danilova's voice came through even heavier and more beautiful than her recordings, the sound system couldn't quite provide for it -- her higher register was portrayed well, but the low end was lost. This was especially frustrating because so much of Danilova's work hovers around the deep end, and it came across muted. Regardless, the show was a smash.


Personal Bias: I appreciate any woman who goes against the flat and one-dimensional norms of popular culture to make powerful music.

Random Detail: I was surprised that the show sold out, but happy that was the case.

By the Way: I did not anticipate that a twenty-one and up show at the Larimer with just two bands on the bill would begin at 9:15 p.m., but it did -- and I missed Talk Normal, an incredible two-piece from Brooklyn.

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