Nothing made me happier than knowing Zola Jesus would be opening her US tour here in San Francisco the day after her stunning 5th LP Taiga was released on Mute Records. The term Taiga, refers to boreal, snow-covered forests in the northern hemisphere, typical of places like Russia, Canada and the Northern US. Zola Jesus is a child of Russian immigrants who grew up in Wisconsin, so we can see this record as an exploration into herself. Taiga hit me hard on a day where albums by Flying Lotus, Caribou and SBTRKT were also released. No easy task to stand out, but dammit if I wasn’t immediately blown away by her ambitious yet elegant electro-pop stylings and off to the show I was on Wednesday night.
Her stage set-up was extravagant. An ornate geometric mountain behind her, a 6 piece horn section to her left and a drummer and keys/synth to her right. She opened with the album’s title track, “Taiga” and thundering drums and her frenetic movement gave me the same chills I got when I first heard the track on the record. There’s a certain elegance to her presence…Like, this is electro-pop, but there’s a level of radiant class that Zola brings and I immediately started to question whether she was too big for this stage, despite the non-sold out crowd. I felt lucky to see her play at a venue this intimate.
She has a distinct ability to settle into the drums and often dances so furiously that her flowy black jacket nearly falls off. With her platinum bracelet tightly clad on her wrist matching her three finger ring, she took us into an energetic climax on the anthemic single “Go (Blank Sea).” There were times when she seemed to be conducting the orchestra, it was brilliant.
I had some issues with the the way the sound booth was isolating her voice on certain tracks, or wasn’t. It could have come across more powerfully and I felt like the sound didn’t put her voice front and center at times. But to her credit, soon after the show started she thanked the crowd and said “This is our FIRST show! We have no idea what were doing right now! The album came out yesterday!” and laughed excitedly. I expect these types of issues to be tightened up as the tour progresses.
My favorite track of the night was “Long Way Down” from the new album. She’s quickly becoming the quintessential vocalist to accompany a harmonious blend of elements of both organic and electronic sound. This is what made her work so well with M83. She came down into the crowd for one of her 4 encore tracks and it was a special experience, when you realize that this larger than life voice is like MAYBE 5’4″ as she struts through the crowd with such sensuality and confidence.
The closing track was “Vessel” off of 2011’s Conatus, eliciting screams of approval from the crowd and ending a spectacular performance. I couldn’t help think of how much this reminded me of Banks’ performance at SXSW this last March and it really made me feel like Banks took A LOT of her style from Zola Jesus. It kinda made me angry at Banks for biting Zola’s style…except where Banks’ ascent has been ruthlessly fast, Zola has had a more controlled career path and it lends to sustainability. At one point, Zola told the crowd “This is strangely exhilarating,” but there was nothing strange about it. She killed it and there’re surely many great things on the horizon for Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus.)