Tuesday August 31 2010
Tonight Zola Jesus plays her first-ever UK gig in the elegantly decadent surroundings of the Brighton Ballroom - probably the only music venue in Britain to have originally been a mausoleum, and you can't get more decadent than that. Fortunately, there are no stiffs in the house nowadays, although I dare say a few ghosts might lurk in the corners, wondering what's become of the dear old place. Right now we're in the midst of a lively (and very much alive) crowd of curious music fans, keen to get first dibs at the Zola Jesus experience.
So, let's not keep the quick or the dead waiting. Here's the first of our support acts, Nick Hudson, who is an 'experimental folk' artist, according to his MySpace page. What that seems to boil down to in practice is neo-folk, but without all the furrowed brows and Valhalla stuff. Instead, we get a set of minimalist piano ballads which Nick Hudson himself, standing at the keyboard, warbles earnestly while his band - guitar, violin, minimal percussion - flesh things out with a certain odd-angled but always sober diligence. The violin lends a sparse chamber music-ish air to the proceedings, but frankly, this kind of thing ain't my thing. It's not like I want Nick Hudson to go psychobilly, or anything, but some dynamics, some push-and-shove, a bit of red blood sloshing around the music would be very welcome. As it is, I find it all a bit staid and anemic.
Mind you, our second support act tonight, Jacob's Stories, makes Nick Hudson look like King Kurt. Seated at his keyboard, an array of effects to hand, a self-effacing chap trundles through - stop me if we've already been here - a set of minimalist piano ballads. The self-effacing chap has a quizzical, almost-falsetto voice - think Thom Yorke, without all the "listen to me for I am a successful avant garde-lite rock star" baggage - and he generally seems like a decent cove.
But he's so self-effacing he doesn't even announce himself, and it seems at least some of the audience doen't know who they're watching."Who are you?" comes a voice from the crowd. "Er, Stuart," replies the self-effacing chap - accurately enough, for Jacob's Stories is the trading name of Stuart Warwick, although that wasn't quite what the voice in the crowd wanted to know.
Curiously enough, I like Stuart/Jacob's recorded stuff, which I've sampled from his MySpace page (I like his sarky comments about MySpace even more), but in terms of live performance Jacob's Stories barely get off the first page.
Zola Jesus may never have set foot on stage in the UK before tonight, but we know enough about her to be fairly sure she won't be doing piano ballads, or singing like Thom Yorke. Especially not singing like Thom Yorke. Nika Roza Damilova (she who is Zola Jesus) has the voice of a punk rock opera diva, huge and strong and defiant.
It's almost a shock to realise, as she appears on stage now, that this powerhouse vocal does not come from the striding valkerie we might expect - for Zola Jesus is small and unassuming, all rats' tails of blonde hair and flapping black clothes like ruffled crow's feathers. She has two keyboard players with her on stage, but nobody spares them more than a glance. Zola Jesus holds the attention of the room in the palm of her hand.
The set is drawn from the new album, Stridulum II. Looming synth waves and bare-bones staccato beats fill the room. The ingredients of the Zola Jesus sound are fairly minimal in themselves, but when they're rolled out at gig volume the effect is massive.
Not massive enough to swamp Zola Jesus, though, for she effortlessly leads from the front with her towering vocal, her voice running before the billowing music as if trying to outpace storm clouds.
'I Can't Stand' is is a sepulchral soul anthem; 'Sea Talk' has a lilt and sway like an ocean swell. There's an almost mystical moment where Zola Jesus picks up a candle from one of the tables out front, and cradles it like a sacred object, dripping the molten wax onto her hands - as if, by making this physical contact with her surroundings, she proves - to us? to herself? - that she's really here.
'Night' falls like a velvet curtain, and I think it's fair to say that Zola Jesus has conquered Brighton. Ghosts and all.
Nick Hudson: MySpace
For more photos from this gig, find Zola Jesus by name here.
Find a Zola Jesus interview and album review in Issue 9 - in the Archive.