I was sadly double booked and missed seeing Zola Jesus when she was in Manchester at the end of last year, so I was looking forward with anticipation to her first headlining date in the city at the Academy last Thursday. Doing battle with massed ranks of fans of Hanson, who were playing Academy 2 that evening, and filled with embarrassment in case any passer by might think I was a Hanson fan too, I glad to escape and climb the stairs to the dizzy heights of Academy 3.
The room was disappointingly empty when I arrived, but it did fill up just before Erika Anderson (EMA) took the stage. Erika featured recently in The Guardian’s “New Band of the Day” column, in which the defined her as a fusion of country, goth and grunge. Now, I’m not one for labels, either attaching them or understanding them, and if asked point blank to define grunge I’d flounder; but obviously goth always makes me prick up my ears. Actually, it was an engaging set, she played the one track I’d previously heard “Grey Ship” early on, and saved the one that everyone else seemed to know, “California” for the end. Apparently the previous night in London she had trashed her guitar at the end of the set, is that what typical grunge behaviour is? But no such rock star going on here, I assume guitars are too expensive to do this everyday.
Now guitar based bands are one of my great turn-offs, but she played it effectively, efficiently and with great enthusiasm. The thundering bass and the searing violin drove along her strong vocals telling country style stories , her stage presence, and her interaction with her audience was very good, and although I wasn’t tempted to go out and buy her album, I enjoyed her time upon the stage.
Zola follows, she looks tiny, dressed in a silver grey dress and a sleeveless fur jacket. For some reason I had always expected Zola Jesus to have some form of ice maiden image on stage, her song style is often cold, bleak and severe, the art work on her latest album to is white and icy; I just assumed her to have a similarly icy detachment from her audience as she sang. But no, on stage she is vigorous and energetic, she absolutely dominates the stage, dancing along to the instrumental sections, and at one point even jumping off stage and dancing in the crowd. Other times she crawls on the floor then hides behind a curtain of her long long blond hair.
Again, if you want to deal in labels, Zola has been described as industrial, classical, electronic and goth. Her music is based around sound layers built up on synthesisers, and she is accompanied on stage by three keyboard players, one of whom doubles up playing electronic percussion; and also a marvellous drummer, Nick Johnson, who keeps up a vibrant display of percussion throughout the show. I think this live show seems to have a much more raw percussive fell than the synthesised percussion sound of the studio albums.
Zola’s strength is totally her voice.She grew up singing opera, and had a voice coach from a young age, switching to rock in her teens. Her deep powerful voice cuts through the layers of swirling synthesiser delivering dark and ominous sounding lyrics. There are echoes of The Cocteau Twins in here, and she also brings to mind big voices such as Diamanda Galas. In her all too short hour long set she went through most of her latest album “Conatus”, and some from last year’s “Stridulum II” including one of my personal favourites “Night”. In my mind I like to allow Zola’s albums to drift over me as I listen, I listen to them as a whole so I rarely know which track is which, so other than Night I would find it hard to name names or discuss individual songs, and much in the way I listen to the albums I could allow this concert to flow over and around me, sometimes just closing my eyes to listen.
It must be nice for bands like Hanson downstairs, playing to a thousand or so idolising fans is probably highly motivating, but Zola and her band put on a completely overpowering show for maybe around 150 people, it must sometimes be difficult to give so much in these circumstances to do that so I’m always so thrilled and grateful when they do..
I’m not going to be an independent or impartial judge here, because I love Zola’s music. This show lived up to my expectations, and I managed to endure a two hour rail and replacement bus journey home by closing my eyes and rerunning a mental videos of her performance.
OK then, I’ve just been hunting around on you tube and someone has uploaded a couple of exceptional videos from that evening. Youtube concert videos are usually poor quality and show more of the heads of the audience than the performer. However these seem to have been shot from the front by someone who clearly knows what they are doing.
So these were uploaded by Orezylrad, if he or she would like me to remove these from this blog I will happily oblige, but otherwise for a taste of the delights of Zola Jesus, these are typical of her Manchester set.