by Kasey McKee
It was a busy Tuesday night for live music in downtown St Paul. A large contingent of concert-goers were preparing to wax nostalgic with the Pixies (sans Kim Deal) at the Palace Theater at sixty bucks a pop. Meanwhile, down the road apiece, fans of the Upper Midwest’s own Zola Jesus filled Amsterdam Bar & Hall amid the sounds of harpsichord fugues and Italian arias flowing from the house speakers.
Zola Jesus is the alias of Nicole Hummel, a native of Merrill, Wisconsin. She has spent the past decade making music that could best be described as Operatic-Gothic-Industrial-Pop, and her latest album Okovi was released last month. Although the niche genre assumes a healthy smattering of black eyeliner and Sandman t-shirts among those in attendance, there were also quite a few retirement-age folks as well, presumably friends and relatives supporting their local-girl-made-good.
The bill was opened by John Wiese, a California-based electronic musician who has been extensively involved with art installations throughout the world. Seated in the middle of the stage, he played a laptop-based set of abrasive-yet-haunting Noise music, reminiscent of early Industrial acts (although when I asked him after the show if he’s a fan of Coil, he made the so-so gesture and replied “Not really”).
Following a short intermission, Zola Jesus took the stage, flanked by accompanists on viola and electric guitar. Diminutive in stature, with jet-black hair and wearing a ghostly-white silk robe, she approached the microphone against a glittering back-projection and launched into the standout track from her new album, “Veka”, a catchy uptempo number that seems destined for dancefloor success.
Leading into another new tune, “Soak”, she wrapped the microphone cable around her neck and arms, swaying from side-to-side as she sang. This cable would be the source of the show’s only blemish, as it began to give off a periodic crackle. She continued her performance undeterred, and the offending hardware was stealthily replaced by the venue’s sound engineer between the third and fourth song.
“SAINT PAUL!” the singer shouted to the crowd. Always a good thing when the band knows what town they’re playing to, as an alarming number of touring acts have made the fatal misstep of appealing to “MINNEAPOLIS!” when performing east of the Mississippi. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the Twin Cities,” she would later say between songs, “so it feels like a second home to me.”
Aside from the minor technical glitch, this performance was probably one of the best-sounding of the many shows I’ve seen at Amsterdam Bar & Hall: the live mix was powerful without being overwhelming, which is a delicate balance for electronic music. The soundscape was filled with doomy synth basslines and heavy 909 drumbeats, with
Zola Jesus herself frenetically jumping around the stage during the high-energy numbers—creating a striking shadowplay against the backdrop—and assuming serene theatrical poses for the slow-burners (like the torch song “Witness”). The set proper ended in a cacophonous maelstrom of white noise, though never losing the danceable rhythm.
The trio exited the stage, only to be called back moments later for an encore. They closed with “Skin”, its sparse ethereal guitar-work and lyrical delivery evoking Elizabeth Fraser’s stirring rendition of “Song to the Siren”. As the final note hung in the air, Zola Jesus thanked a crowd that appeared to be both sated and wanting more: the best a live performer can hope for.
The house lights went up, but it wasn’t over yet. After the show, the singer was extraordinarily gracious to her devotees, hanging out in the room to sign records and chat with fans for nearly an hour. Although I was unable to secure a formal interview for this publication, I did approach her to ask a single pertinent question.
“Is the song ‘Wiseblood’ on Okovi a reference to the Flannery O’Connor novel of the same name?”
“Ahhhh,” she said wincing in mock-terror. “I feel like such a fraud because I haven’t read the book! I’ve only seen the movie, which is so great. So that’s where the song title came from.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “The John Huston movie. The Church of Jesus Christ Where There Ain’t No Jesus.”
I recommended O’Connor’s original, and she asked about the book I was carrying under my arm (Death Kit: A Novel by Susan Sontag). After a brief exchange about that author’s non-fiction work, I thanked her for her performance and went out to the patio to mix and mingle, confident that the fifteen dollar cover charge had indeed been well-spent.