Jesus with JG Thirlwell
Thursday October 3 2013
Last time Zola Jesus took a swing through London,
she had a full band in tow (including an extravagant heavy metal drummer)
and she packed Heaven with a suitably up-for-it audience, eager to experience
her towering weirdo-soul anthems. A big gig, a big crowd, and a big sound.
It was an unequivocal arrival: an artist coming out of left field and booting
down the door of the mainstream.
But if we expected Zola Jesus to maintain a straight-line trajectory onwards and upwards from that point (and I confess I more or less expected just that), we've been wrong-footed by her sudden side step into entirely different territory.
Tonight, there is no band - well, certainly not in an rock 'n' roll sense: heavy metal drummers are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, we've got a string quartet - and JG Thirlwell.
Yes, the man who gave us umpteen Foetus variations looms behind a laptop and conducts proceedings - literally, via a series of jerky gestures that make it look as if he's performing his own bizarre hand jive. The quartet pick their way delicately through deconstructed arrangements of the Zola Jesus songbook, sheet music much to the fore.
Out front, striding to and fro in an outfit that looks
like it's straight off a willow pattern plate, Zola Jesus herself seems
entirely absorbed by the music. She delivers a vocal that roils and resonates,
making full use of this Victorian chapel's natural reverb. The songs themselves
stand up uncannily well to the stripped-down string arrangements, but then
Zola Jesus always did walk the tightrope between minimalism and maximalism
with a sure step.
Laptop beats chunk and wallop, as if JG Thirlwell is chanelling 80s hip-hop. Violins, viola and cello dance their precise pirouette.
The melody of 'Seatalk'
rises to meet each chorus like an incoming tide. 'Run Me Out' is a sepulchral,
after-dark thing, the cello grumbling away in the undergrowth while Zola
Jesus allows her vocal to prowl around the song like before unleasing some
crescendos that sound almost scary, erupting as they do from an otherwise
entirely ascetic arrangement.
'Night' comes creeping in like twilight, the strings keening, JG Thirlwell gesticulating mightily, as if signalling to passing aliens. None of the string players ever glance in his direction, which lends an curious surrealism to his robotic arm-waving. JG Thirlwell is responsible for the string arrangements tonight, but I can't help wondering if, having made those arrangements, his presence on stage is strictly necessary. His role essentially seems to be a human click track.
But it's Zola Jesus, reserved and self-effacing though she is, who provides the focal point. Her slight figure dominates the stage; her occasional half-smiles endear her to the crowd more than any crassly effusive between-song chat.
The big finish is 'Fall Back', one of Zola Jesus' towering soul torch songs, its height entirely undiminished by tonight's sparse arrangement. The vocal billows mightily like a man o' war in full sail, and at the very end - when the string quartet signs off with a brief burst of vivacissimo shredding, and JG Thirlwell comes forward to take a bow - the applause is Last Night Of The Proms-loud.
I've learned my lesson. I'm not going to make any more predictions as to where Zola Jesus might go next. But tonight's detour was entirely worth the trip.