Zola Jesus and JG Thirlwell with Magik*Magik Quartet
Thursday, Sept. 25, 2013
Palace of Fine Arts
Better than: Dinner and a movie.
It's quiet outside the Palace of Fine Arts this Thursday night, a few people milling around looking for the entrance to this massive edifice with a massive-er monument outside. Inside, it's not much livelier. Youngish bears with freshly coifed beards brush past neo-goths on date night with plenty of impeccably bland straight hipsters padding out the remainder. We take our seats at 8 p.m. sharp and the pre-gig buzz is less rock and more Thursday night art-house revival at the Roxie. The PA plays some barely audible low-key post-punk in the vein of This Heat. What's this show all about? Is this a night for fans of Zola Jesus' (née Nika Roza Danilova) crooning, or JG Thirlwell's neo-orchestral dalliances? It's never wise to have too many expectations, but as the clock continued to run past the 8 o'clock mark, almost everything under the Palace's harsh house lights seemed in conflict with any you cared to hold.
Thank goodness then that Ms. Danilova and Mr. Thirlwell, ably aided by the locally sourced Magik*Magik Quartet, perform a mesmerizing, soaring set that, for several several glorious moments, renders such environmental factors irrelevant. The setlist culls from the recent release Versions, reimagined renditions of Zola Jesus songs arranged by Mr. Thirlwell (who conducts the quartet as well as triggering occasional laptop beats.) Sonically, the melding is heavenly. Thirlwell's strings provide the right amount of skronk and velvety harmony over Ms. Danilova's sultry contralto. There are few vocalists in the underground crop who can step out from behind a bank of processors and command an audience unadorned. Tonight shows Ms. Danilova to be more Adele than Alice Glass, and this collaboration to be far more than an affectation.
The evening is not without its bumps, however. Although the set peaks with gorgeous renditions of "Avalanche" and "Night," the ensemble takes a bit too long to get there, spending the first 10 minutes of its vanishingly brief 45-minute run time finding its bearings. Once it gets there, the chemistry is intoxicating. But the audience is still filling the venue about halfway through the set. It's certainly not the fault of the venue or whomever was tasked with promoting the event, as the music began a full 15 minutes after the clearly noted 8 p.m. start time.
"What a beautiful venue," exclaims Ms. Danilova, halfway through the set. Objectively it was true, but really it feels over-large and exacerbates the lack of intimacy. Blame it on the path of the stars, but between venue, audience, and performers, it feels like all the elements only lined up for a total of 20 minutes. Still, the present tour of this collaboration is a maiden voyage, and one gets the impression that the evening's skittering and creepy string coda--just Thirlwell and Magik*Magik--is evidence of what's to come. It would be fascinating to see this group with all the proper elements dialed in. But it's a trickier proposition than one might imagine to present pop music with classical instruments to an audience with rock-club expectations. Let lessons be learned and let this bird fly once more.
"You're beautiful," someone calls out with utter politeness to a blushing Danilova.
The crowd wanted an encore the musicians almost don't give. After Mr. Thirlwell explained, "That's it," presumably meaning there's no rehearsed material left to perform, the audience got its way, and the ensemble reprised "Avalanche."
So many people didn't realize this show was going to start before 9 p.m., including the very earnest young man who arrived at the Palace's entrance with a bouquet of flowers (!) several minutes after the encore that nearly didn't happen.