Ybor felt like a ghost town as my boyfriend and I made our way to see Zola Jesus on Monday night. There was no line of barely-legal, barely-dressed kids waiting to get into the Czar, nor any raucous Cuban music pouring out of the small cigar shops. Even Carmine's, where we'd planned to stop for a Bloody Mary and a white sangria (the best in town), was closed. I guess because I was so used to the bustling, well-lit Ybor of the weekends, the deserted streets were sort of spooky. I didn't realize it at the time, but this eeriness was an apt prelude to the rest of the evening.
Several others were already queued up, waiting in the sticky night for the doors to open at Crowbar. I didn't know what to expect for the turnout. The audience was pressed together like cattle at the Mountain Goats show a few weeks ago, but when I saw Jolie Holland and Mates of State last year, the venues was at half-capacity at best. If no one else joined the seven or eight of us there in line, I wouldn't have been surprised; likewise if a flood of people suddenly appeared.
More people began to trickle in as the Liquid Jesus DJs spun bland dance songs, including a discomfiting cover of Paul Simon's “You Can Call Me Al” (no bass solo? Sacrilege!). Outmode, a two-piece electronica outfit from Tampa, took to the floor and played a short set with songs heavy on the loops and light on the audience interaction. Full disclosure: I know next to nothing about electronic music, and aside from Satie, Chopin or Django Reinhardt, everything I listen to has prominent vocals. So while I couldn't really get into Outmode's offerings, others seemed to, forming a semicircle around the duo's keyboards and bobbing to their beats.
Talk Normal from Brooklyn followed. They bathed the stage in murky red light, the perfect hellish visual for their dark, manic music and reminiscent of those empty Ybor streets. Guitarist Sarah Register and drummer Andrya Ambro seized and pounded their way through a menacing set with songs that were part Diamanda Galás, part vodou possession. Ambro wailed a furious and pained glossolalia as she assaulted the drums. Register at first looked like a frightened rabbit, but as the set continued — possibly entranced by Ambro's primal rhythms — she grew more confident. She jammed a screwdriver under her guitar strings and bent and curled her notes into wild banshee screams.
As Talk Normal cleared the stage and Zola Jesus' band set up their instruments, someone set a large, blue glowing cube in the middle of the otherwise-dark stage. Zola (née Nika Roza Danilova) stalked to the mic. She looked so frail with her icy blonde hair and pale, diaphanous tunic, but as soon as the music began and she opened her mouth, a tornado burst forth and tore through the now-substantial audience, leaving us dazed. She shook, paced, jerked and danced, all the while singing her way through an intense, emotionally draining set backed by seismic battle drums, a violent violin and ominous, swirling synths. Crouching on the glowing cube as the music smothered her, she rocked back and forth, as though in the midst of a nightmare or a mental breakdown. Then she was back up again, belting out more songs in her larger-than-life voice and frenetically pacing, an animal trapped in and fighting against its cage—the animal being Zola's voice and the cage her corporeality. I wondered, how did her howls with their unimaginable force not rip through her tiny body?
This was the biggest difference between Zola Jesus live and Zola Jesus on a record: the sheer power and sense of destruction in the former, and its relative lack in the latter. If on the record it sounded as though she were taking Klonopin, then live it was as though she were on steroids. And then, after an hour of thrashing and wailing, after jumping off the stage into the morass of the crowd, after the encore, she calmly raised her arm straight above her head as she walked off the stage, a victorious gesture that simply said, “I survived.”