On record, Zola Jesus' songs can feel like dark, locked rooms--haunted, inhabitable, but ultimately self-contained; onstage, however, they explode. Singer Nika Danilova, whose operatically trained vocals are the centerpiece of Zola Jesus' songs, summons up quantities of, well, just soulfulness all but unhinted at on her recordings--like Kate Bush doing Tina Turner, almost. It was amazing.
Danilova came out after her bandmates--three keyboardists and one drummer (and, btw, can I just say it's rad that a band comprising one drummer and three synthesizers has once again become a legit option in indie rock). As a synth drone played in the background, she walked out entirely shrouded in white, her whole head covered, and she began to flail, silently and away from the microphone, as the band kicked up a rhythm. The stage, previously pitch-black, was now lit up with a projection of crisscrossing dim white lines, aimed from the foot of the stage so that the patterns played out on Danilova's white cloak. Already this was a spectacle, but when Danilova lowered the hood of her cloak and stepped up to the microphone, shit got real.
Danilova jerked her body to the songs' rhythms and leapt around the stage, all the while nailing her vocals. The projected patterns shifted from lines to circles to vaguely occult shapes. The drummer just pounded--he was an intensely hard-hitting drummer--bolstering the songs' light-industrial drum-machine beats, and the three synthesizers sounded out glassy leads and low, buzzing bass lines. I intend to relisten to the recorded material to see if I was just missing something, but it seemed to me that her songs took on an unexpectedly upbeat tone live, all the moodiness giving way to a kind of righteous triumphalism. Witchy, sure, but royally witchy. Heroically witchy. So much so that when, on the band's final song, Danilova disappeared into the crowd, her voice still echoing spectrally around the room, it didn't seem at all odd that she should reappear on top of the Croc's bar. In this dark little room, she was indisputably in charge.