Seeing Zola Jesus at the beginning of a festival like SXSW is a perilous activity, because the singer's so good at her job that you might end up holding the rest of the performers to an impossibly high standard. The first time I saw Zola Jesus was last year, on the first night of CMJ, and I spent the subsequent four days complaining that every other band was terrible. Last week at the Fader Fort, she was the final performer of the day, so I had time to get over my awe before judging any other acts too harshly.
I was a little worried that ZJ (aka Nika Rosa Danilova) wouldn’t sound so hot outdoors, especially since I'd previously seen her inside a small club with a decent sound system, but she immediately put my worries to rest. Accompanied by her band (which, of course, included a violinist), she tore through tracks from her recent album Conatus and some of her EPs. Dressed in some kind of tunic that could've doubled as a bed sheet, Danilova pranced around the stage barefoot. Blond hair flying, she even popped into the audience to do her usual run around the venue. She ended the set by banging on the drums and thoroughly blowing everybody’s minds with her gigantic, operatic voice. My SXSW pals and I were so impressed that we planned to see her a second time, the very next day, until someone told us Titus Andronicus was playing for free a few blocks away. Flexibility is key in these types of situations, especially when you have a chance to listen to pop-punk that references the Civil War.
Zola Jesus is on tour in Europe this spring, and will be back in the U.S. in May for a performance at the Guggenheim in NYC.