Live Review: Zola Jesus, Ryley Walker at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre (1/16)

Zola Jesus

In the darkness before Zola Jesus, a black peak loomed. The 25-year-old singer, who recently released her fifth album, Taiga, is nothing if not tasteful with her set pieces. Instead of projections, banners, or branding, Nika Roza Danilova just wanted a mountaintop. Her work to date fixates in part on the relationship between the human being and the natural world. The piece fit.

But before the polygonal, translucent crag lit up behind Zola Jesus, it hung dark behind Ryley Walker, another young songwriter with an eye for landscape; his new song, “Primrose Green”, is a blossoming pastoral offering when you hear it on tape. Live, the experimental guitarist known for working with local avant-garde fixtures like Wrekmeister Harmonies only uses his songs as templates. “Primrose Green” at the Athenaeum last night sounded little like the “Primrose Green” I’d streamed online. The words were the same, but the song itself erupted beyond its own boundaries.

Ryley Walker

Walker opened for Zola Jesus on the second night of this year’s Tomorrow Never Knows, Chicago’s winter festival whose timing lets it serve as both a recap of 2014’s best music and a preview for what’s new in 2015. Last night, the Athenaeum got a taste of both, as Danilova played through most of the songs from Taiga while Walker previewed his forthcoming album on Dead Oceans, also called Primrose Green.

He looks the part of a folk balladeer, but Walker is more of a jazz guy. He plays with an upright bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist, and an electric guitarist, sticking to acoustic and voice himself. The band he’s put together thrives off his energy; bass lines rippled, drums flickered, while Walker’s words and chords made a pillar at the center of it all. This was his first time at the Athenaeum, though he’s from the city, and it made the perfect space for his hypnotizing Americana. You could sit in one place and watch him get lost in the fog.

Zola Jesus’ fans, on the other hand, were less content to stay seated. By the end of her set, a few had leapt to the aisles to dance, and how could you blame them? Danilova herself is a fiery presence. She throws her hair around like a weapon, headbanging and thrashing like she’s in a sweaty punk basement. She climbs speakers and jumps off of them, all in four-inch heels.

Zola Jesus

With that mountain lit up like a Jim Henson crystal, Zola Jesus performed in silhouette. It’s harder to connect with a performer when you can’t see their face, but Danilova knows that, I think. She challenges herself on purpose. With hardly any facial expression to parse, we went on voice, posture, and movement. Zola Jesus was generous with all three.

Accompanied by a drummer, trombonist, and keyboardist, Zola Jesus performed mostly synthetic, mostly faithful renditions of the songs on Taiga. She began “Nail” with a few haunting a cappella measures, her powerful vocals carrying through the theater. Her band lurked mostly in the shadows, anonymous and dressed in black.

Zola Jesus

Maybe it’s unusual for a performer who’s released five albums to close her set pre-encore with a song from a five-year-old EP, but “Night” may still be the best thing Danilova has ever written. It still seems to be a fan favorite, eliciting cheers and prompting dancers in the audience to shake off their shyness. Live, it’s huge, a towering, toppling monolith of a song that gets you right in the spine. Zola Jesus has one hell of a catalog for her age, but she still has yet to surpass her five-year zenith.

Dangerous Days
In Your Nature
Go (Blank Sea)
Sea Talk
Long Way Down