Zola Jesus Roars Into Her Birthplace With Primal Performance

Nika Rosa Danilova, better known to her fans as Zola Jesus, walked onstage Friday night at Crescent Ballroom and slowly raised her arms in a style reminiscent of the savior as depicted in the Catholic faith. The soothing blue stage lights turned a deep crimson as she danced wildly to the haunting loop of her vocals from the opening title track of her latest album Taiga. She shook her head back and forth like some sort of hip-hop punk princess as the bling she wore on her arms and fingers reflected in the eyes of a rapturous audience.

For five albums, the self-proclaimed musical recluse has been acclimating herself to life outside of the serene forests of her childhood home in Merrill, Wisconsin. Her earlier work, which includes collaborations with electronic artist M83 and a remix of her song "In Your Nature" by director David Lynch, had brought her critical acclaim in indie music circles. The journey of moving away from her isolated adolescence in the Midwest was an influence on Taiga, which is Russian for "boreal forests." The 2014 release was the focus of the night's set list. Both the album and her performance danced a delicate line between pop and the avant-garde, and were filled to the brim with theatrical exaggerations. She was telling the story of evolving away from her post-punk roots and focusing on finding more of a commercial sensibility to her musical output.

See also: The Phoenix Music Scene Bucket List

The musicians behind her, which included a trombonist who added a mythic feel to the proceedings, were certainly skilled and capable, but the strongest instrument on stage was Danilova's opera-trained voice. When mixed with the upbeat track "Dangerous Days," her vocals evoked both hip-hop royalty like Rihanna and elder punk princess Siouxsie Sioux. Occasionally, Danilova would retreat to that secluded place of her childhood. Her porcelain face, highlighted with dark mascara and lipstick, would look frightened and somewhat bewildered as she sang "And I go down town/Where they don't know my name" on the track "Go (Blank Sea)."

More often than not, Danilova unleashed the feral beast the pop world isn't quite prepared for yet, but the audience certainly welcomed. Belting out the brassy epic song "Hunger," she ran frantically across the stage as if she were trying to escape a secure padded room. She looked almost possessed as she went out into the crowd. At one point she even climbed onto an equipment crate, the white lights of camera phones and the stage flashing upon her. She reached for the rafters. Her long dark hair whipped back and forth in the darkness as she growled her lyrics with a sense of urgency. She had turned into a beautiful musical creature before the crowd's very eyes, and the metamorphosis was a sight to behold.

Still discussing and processing the transformation that had just taken place, the audience couldn't hear Danilova's mic-less a cappella introduction to the song "Nail." As the song built to a rousing finale, the audience joined her in a call and answer to the tune's refrain: "Set me free/Pull the nail out with your teeth/Set me free/Don't leave me wasted." We had seen the singer set herself free right onstage. Her encore was "Skin," the song that brought her to the attention of the viewers of television's "The Vampire Diaries" last year.

This performance was also a sort of homecoming for the artist, who announced she was born in Phoenix's Maryvale Hospital almost 26 years ago. Being back in The Valley obviously meant something to her. She was selling limited edition posters designed by local artist James Rheem Davis to commemorate her return, and heaped praise upon the crowd and the Crescent Ballroom. "It's like I never left," she exclaimed. Like an overbearing mother, the crowd wished she would come home more often.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Zola Jesus with Deradoorian at Crescent Ballroom

The Crowd: An unusual mix of goth leather and indie corduroy

Random Notebook Dump: "She peered into the crowd as if she were scared she wasn't getting through to the hometown team because no one was dancing, not realizing that not dancing is the norm for every show in this town."

Personal Bias: I played trombone in high school, so in my eyes Zola Jesus had already won my heart when I saw that brass gleaming in the blue light.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil