Recap: Reinventing Zola Jesus with J.G. Thirlwell and Mivos Quartet (photos, review, video)

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Zola Jesus | Photo by John Vettese

While it seemed a stretch to take an electronic rock leading lady out of the club and into the art-house, last night Zola Jesus gave the impression that she’s more comfortable in a theatrical setting. Backed by New York’s Mivos Quartet, as well as experimental music trailblazer J.G. Thirlwell - who conducted the proceedings with a metronomic arm from behind a MacBook – Zola Jesus’ set at International House was a haunting chamber pop performance as heard on her new album, Versions.

The record was made in collaboration with Thirlwell and Mivos, and it spins a selection of industrial-inspired dance songs from the Zola Jesus catalog as delicate pieces set to strings and accentuating beats. For last night’s performance – the first on the group’s fall tour – the beats were all but stripped away. Mostly we heard the frontwoman’s intense vocal inflections backed by fervent playing by the quartet; Thirlwell, wearing headphones, simply kept time, acted as conductor in the orchestral sense for most of the set.

“Hikikomori” was a particularly stunning selection early on, and saw the start of Zola’s pantomime gestures and not-quite-dance-moves that went on to accentuate the songs throughout the show. The string strains of “Sea Talk” were also tremendous and uplifting, and her vocals soared on this one; she’s got the pipes of a pop singer, cloaked in a goth diva’s mystique. (Not unlike Kate Bush in that regard.) Without a packed club crowd to contend with – this group was politely nested in auditorium seating – Zola Jesus wandered offstage and onto the floor, huddling at the foot of the first row, staring piercingly into the audience’s eyes.

Thirlwell’s contribution expanded by the set’s close to involve the dispensing of beats – which sounded great on “Clay Bodies,” a song originally from Zola Jesus’ 2009 album The Spoils; though it does not appear on Versions, it was reworked tremendously by the ensemble for its first-ever live performance (watch a video below).

The performance was the fall season kickoff at International House, and was paired with a benefit art auction that runs til 3 p.m. today and preview of some of the programming in store – including a showcase of Federico Fellini’s films as well as a series of events themed around birds (including, naturally, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds). More information can be found at the International House website.