Concert Review: Zola Jesus

Concert Review: Zola Jesus

Though Danilova turned in a stirring performance, the atmosphere of the Old Church permeated the concert.

(Photo: Michael Booth)

I’ve written concert reviews likening shows to the act of going to church before. However, if you’re fortunate enough to see a concert at Portland’s Old Church, the venue adds something sacred to the performance. The structure, built in 1882, is the oldest church building in downtown Portland. Used today exclusively for concert events, a feeling of hushed reverence still hangs over the space. Such a beautiful, and unusual, room changes the context of a performance. The grubby rankness of a sweat-filled club or the plastic inhumanity of a corporate venue both infect the feel of an evening. Seated in our pews in rapt silence seemed like the best way to take in a Zola Jesus performance.

I have to admit that I had written off Zola Jesus’ Nika Roza Danilova after her 2014 album Taiga. A blatant stab at mainstream success, Taiga saw Danilova jump labels from Sacred Bones to Mute, writing uninspired pop songs that cast away the dark beauty that made her Stridulum EP (2010) and Conatus (2011) so compelling. With the mysterious elements gone, Taiga felt dime-a-dozen, another adventurous artist lost to conventional aspirations. A series of difficult life events, however, brought Danilova back to her artistic best, making this year’s Okovi, once again on Sacred Bones, possibly her best album to date. It’s stark, dramatic and aching. Exactly the type of performance Danilova gave in front of a sold-out crowd at the Old Church.

Flanked by the venue’s pipe organ, Danilova took the stage in near darkness, a flickering light the only illumination as a guitarist and violist joined her. As a background of pre-recorded synths and percussion filled the venue, Danilova stretched out in child’s pose, waiting for the show to begin. Clad in a dark, flowing outfit that resembled a kimono, Danilova turned in an hour-long set that leaned heavy on Okovi material but also reached back to her older works.

Kicking things off with “Veka,” the most notable thing about a Zola Jesus concert is the power of her voice. Standing at barely five feet, the enormity of sound that pours forth from Danilova is amazing. Through songs such as “Soak” and “Hikikomori,” Danilova emoted over soundscapes that sound similar to William Orbit’s work on Madonna’s Ray of Light album. The audience sat in silent amazement. Barely an iPhone appeared to capture the performance.

Danilova didn’t do too much talking during the show. She did mention she used to live in Seattle and that “Witness,” about the suicide attempt of someone close to her, would be difficult to sing. While Danilova played old favorites “Night” and “Vessel” towards the end of her 13-song set, new song “Exhumed” was an absolute show-stopper, a performance so powerful that it propelled the singer off the stage and into the audience. While this would have been an excellent way to end the show, Danilova returned to play a subdued but haunting version of “Skin.”

Though Danilova turned in a stirring performance, the atmosphere of the Old Church permeated the concert. I will be thinking about that special place tonight when I see Depeche Mode in a soulless arena. Concert venues don’t have to be awful. The Old Church and Zola Jesus more than proved that fact.

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