Zola Jesus Sings Some Very Modern Blues at Fitz

Rather than simply being a product of her influences, Zola Jesus transcends them.
Rather than simply being a product of her influences, Zola Jesus transcends them.
Photos by Jack Gorman

Zola Jesus, Deradoorian Fitzgerald's February 2, 2015

Zola Jesus is not an indie artist. She is not an electronic artist. She is neither an industrial, goth, nor an experimental artist. She transcends these silly, superfluous labels like David Bowie, Diamanda Galas, Prince and Kate Bush before her. She fuses together too many musical elements to be instantly referential, and in an age where any genre of music can be readily accessed, Jesus comprises every artist, musician and writer she has encountered in her brief existence.

Today's shrinking world creates artists whose influences are not so easily spotted, and the new blueprint for musicians reflects our changing times. The days when broadcasting limitations produced listener fatigue are over; KTRU, oh how we miss you on the FM airwaves! The once great risk of shelling out hard-earned cash on an album only to discover that the lead single was a classic bait-and-switch (see Clash's Cut the Crap, Queen's Hot Space, and Radiohead's Pablo Honey) has been gratefully replaced with enough access to information to make educated selections.

That technology has generated this era's current cast of musicians is unquestionable, and Zola Jesus is no exception. But for her to mention bubblegum pop, Throbbing Gristle and Kate Bush as influences all in the same breath is truly emblematic of the times.

Opener Deradoorian summoned angels from every religion, pairing nicely with the headliner's spellcraft.
Opener Deradoorian summoned angels from every religion, pairing nicely with the headliner's spellcraft.

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On Monday night, when most Houstonians were weathering the effects of a Super Bowl hangover, Jesus and openers Deradoorian showcased their orchestral approach to music, discreetly underscoring those influential elements some tedious minutia-listeners can pick through, like straining water for gnats. Others simply succumbed to the moment.

"We're the opener," Angel Deradoorian announced to the perplexed crowd, as she and her sister Arlene faced each other and nervous laughter followed the icebreaker. Formerly of the Dirty Projectors and more recently Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, Angel banged on a drum set consisting of only a snare and a floor tom. Their majestic voices summoned angels from every religion, beginning the evening with bruised and fragile songs that slowly lured the audience into their world.

But it was what she did while performing the songs -- sampling the beats her sister played, looping them over minimalistic keyboard lines and lush ambient vocal harmonies -- that gave their set an improvisational feel. "High Road," from the band's sole EP Mind Raft, plucked gently in the beginning only to swell with bitterness and intensity, masked by sweet melodies and Angel's vocals mimicking Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. On occasion she strapped on the bass, a cherry-red Hofner that accented the songs in the same way the drums and keyboards had. No one instrument is greater than the sum of its parts.

Zola Jesus Sings Some Very Modern Blues at Fitz

"I have pretty big shoes to fill...Kelly Rowland's shoes," Zola Jesus quipped with a charming grin during the early part of her set, making her first foray into Houston in support of new album Taiga. The artist formerly known as Nika Danilova seized the stage at Fitzgerald's, whipping her hair back and forth, headbanging and stomping, using the façade as a balance beam all while wearing five-inch heel platform boots.

A performer equally comfortable being withdrawn from and engaged with the crowd, Jesus alternately stared at the ground and leapt onto the floor to dance with the audience.

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Zola Jesus Sings Some Very Modern Blues at Fitz

Joined by a drummer playing an acoustic/electronic hybrid kit, a trombonist, and an interfacing keyboardist, Jesus lived through her songs, opening with Taiga's ethereal title track. The tension and drone was interrupted by a beat taken out of electronic music's finest genre, jungle. "Dangerous Days" unleashed a house beat to match her most uplifting song to date. Her vocals haunted onlookers. Normally, small talk fills the air between bands' songs, but the only sound that filled the air here was a reverent silence.

"Dust" revealed a bluesy and soulful delivery that tonally resembled old spirituals, but no other song in her set sounded like a hymn more so than "Nail." When Jesus began with a few moving a cappella measures, the effects of her enthralling vocals carried through the crowd. The night ended with a grave, yet earnest performance of "Skin" from Conatus, leaving each person in the audience wishing for her to return to the Bayou City sooner than later.

As a performer, Zola Jesus held the crowd's beating hearts in her hands, leaving them in awe and wonder; as musicians, however, Deradoorian captured the crowd's minds, temporarily erasing from them any memory of the Dirty Projectors -- at least for one night.

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