San Francisco – Singer-songwriter Nika Roza Danilova—aka Zola Jesus—kicked off her 2014 tour at this city’s delightfully kitschy supper club/music venue Bimbo’s 365 the other night, supporting her brand new (and fifth) studio album, Taiga. Bimbo’s is somewhat of a unique venue, boasting candlelit tables pasted amongst platforms rising up from the dance floor.
Taiga is Zola Jesus’s first flirtation with melody-driven pop music, as her previous LPs focused on a more artful, experimentally Baroque approach to modern music. When the first single of the album, “Dangerous Days,” was released back in June, Zola claimed that this album would be her first number one, hopefully skyrocketing her to the pop fame she so desires. Having only heard her new album once, I was unsure as to what to expect from this show, though I was pleasantly surprised and pleased.
The singer’s current tour—supported (somewhat surprisingly) by Dan Boeckner’s (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits) new project Operators, who were excellent by the way (keep them on your radar for sure!). She not only treated us with a full top-to-bottom showcase of her new album, she was also accompanied by a full brass band of almost a dozen members, providing an excellent array of organic tones that diligently complimented the heavier synths and percussion that make up most of Zola Jesus’s music.
Just as the album begins, she opened with the echo-y, droning title track “Taiga” and then transitioned into the thumping, engrossing single “Dangerous Days,” perhaps her most radio-friendly track to date. The song, which has been played relentlessly on college radio stations and indie-themed satellite stations for weeks, refused to sound tired and redundant, and the hungry crowd agreed. The live version was just as arresting as the studio/single version, erupting the dance floor into a flurry of ecstatic tableaus painted on the walls by electrifying strobes. She then barreled into the tamer “Dust” followed by the synth-heavy toe-tapper “Hunger,” one of Taiga’s most illustrious dance tracks. Next came “Go (Blank Sea),” the second pre-released track from the album, a more solemn and droning track as compared to its predecessors.
The most ornate song from Taiga is “Ego,” which, on the album, is floated by incredibly poignant strings that delicately carry an almost bare vocal track, though the live version was similarly beautiful as the strings were replaced by bellowing brass. The sweeping, lonely vocals of “Lawless” followed, succeeded by the thumping track “Nail,” which had a gorgeously picturesque a cappella intro that eventually evolved into the full orchestration of the track. Her main set closed with the final tracks of Taiga: two-step-y “Long Way Down,” the heavily percussed “Hollow” and the crawling glacier-like flow of “It’s Not Over.”
Zola Jesus’s encore was comprised of her older work that stretched across her pre-Taiga career, starting with “Clay Bodies,” a track lifted from her debut LP The Spoils. This was briskly followed by “Sea Talk” (from the Valusia EP), crowd favorite and popular single “Vessel”—from the breakthrough record Conatus—and night closer and Stridulum EP opener “Night,” all fearlessly entwined with the fabulous mystique that Zola Jesus founded her idiosyncratic sound upon.
I first saw Zola Jesus several years ago, back when she was blonde and before she even released her first LP. It was at a tiny venue on Haight Street called Milk Bar—right near the famous Amoeba Record Store—and she even mentioned that performance in her pointed repartee with tonight’s audience. At that particular show, she sounded amazing, even though I could barely see her because there were so many people there. This was glorious retribution, and I am glad she acknowledged that first appearance, because it made this one all the more special. She has come so far, and she has broadened her horizons so magnificently since then that to think of that first performance as sub-standard would be unfair. It was wonderful. Though, after seeing her tonight, I can confidently say that she has surpassed any and all expectations I formed in my mind that night back in 2010, as well as any I had coming into this particular performance.
Taiga is a brave venture into unknown territory for Zola Jesus, and while this was her first performance on this tour with this material—and she actually asked for our forgiveness because they didn’t “know what [they were] doing”—it seemed pretty clear that she and her band were more than adequately prepared. Brava, Ms. Danilova. Keep on pushing that envelope, girl; them paper cuts ain’t gonna touch your style.
Zola Jesus is on tour in North America and Europe through November. For more information on tour dates click here. Taiga is now available via Mute Records.