Nika Roza Danilova (or Zola Jesus) stands at most five feet tall, but her sound is at least twice that. On Taiga (2014), we discovered boundlessness; at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco two evenings ago, we witnessed the conquering of mountains.
Much like Lorde, but with a Jesus/Madonna complex, Danilova really can’t dance. Throughout her set Wednesday night, she shimmied and jerked like Alice Glass, made eccentric Björkian hand motions, showcased quick footwork, and shrugged happily and knowingly towards the cameras at the front of the historic music hall.
Dressed in a hooded, dark blue cape and backlit by a large iceberg-shaped paper lamp, Danilova delivered the entirety of Taiga from start to finish for the first time with a four-piece brass ensemble consisting of session musicians on a tuba, several trombones, and a trumpet. She commented, between “Dust” and “Hunger”, laughing as she broke the fourth wall (which, for the most part, didn’t exist that night), “We have no idea what we’re doing right now.”
On the contrary, we think she knew exactly what she was doing. Like great leaders who never intended to lead, and artists before her with a great sense of self-awareness, Zola Jesus was a performer who, in her insecurities, found a radiant, everyman’s sort of confidence. Other great one-liners:
“San Francisco… what the fuck, man. I played my first show at Milkbar – is that still around?” (post “Go”)
“A capella, bitches…” (pre-“Nail,” after a false start on a wrong tuning note; she proceeded to deliver the first half solo)
“Dust” and “Hunger,” which we skirted over in our album review, were the highlights of the performance.
The former came after a brass-heavy opening and “Dangerous Days;” its stripped-down accompaniment provided a break for her distinct vocals to shine over pounding bass and tuba. Her core percussive support (composed of sound engineers and instrumentalists Alex DeGroot, Mikey Pinaud, and Daniel Eaton) was to be noted here, switching between soft mallet toms and harsher ride cymbal.
Punctuated trombone motifs on the latter utilized the live brass unit best, creating danceable moments during which Danilova shuffled about the stage spastically, a Michael Jackson on speed. A few musical stutters occurred here and there — we caught a cymbal slip on an otherwise well-executed “Go (Blank Sea)” — but these will certainly be stamped out as the tour progresses.
An hour later, when Taiga finally drew to a close on a majestic rendition of “It’s Not Over,” the crowd was in shock. Half of them had sung every word, and the other half had witnessed a thoroughly moving performance which they would be compelled to piece together afterwards, perhaps by purchasing the physical record on their way out of the venue. But before doing so, they called Danilova back onstage for an encore.
Having exhausted her new material, Danilova appeased veterans with a four-track summary of her prior discography: “Clay Bodies” from The Spoils (2009), “Sea Talk” from Stridulum (2010), and “Vessel” from Conatus (2011). A telltale foghorn indicated the start of grand finale, “Night” from Stridulum again. At one point, she exited the stage (another fourth barrier no-no), revealing just how tiny she was as the audience tried to follow her visually; even the Bimbo’s staff had difficulty spotlighting her as she walked through the crowd.
The dynamic during this encore, despite being a diverse range of emotions from powerfully sobering (“Sea Talk”) to fiercely energetic (“Vessel”), was nothing quite like the core of the performance. It was there, earlier, that her feelings of pride and emotional attachment came through; it was with Taiga that Zola Jesus identified.
But she connected with San Francisco on a deeper level, too, leaving the city with a genuinely modified lyric — “at the end of the night, I can be with you.”
Article by Joanna Jiang