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Zola Jesus, Escort: When MAGIC parties are worth it

Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus

Afterparties for the biannual MAGIC convention can be some of the most insufferable events you'll ever attend in Las Vegas. Usually, the blame falls squarely on MAGIC conventioneers themselves. I'm not threatened by their pretentiousness, the usual complaint against them. No, what irritates me most is their general rudeness. Like the 6'3 dude who charges through the crowd and then stops right in front of the 5'2 girl watching the performing band so he can be closest to the singer. Or the other guy who walks with a suspiciously naive air toward the bar, so his otherwise blatant line-cutting looks accidental. 

As such, there are only three reasons to attend these parties: Free admission, free booze and free concerts. On the latter perk, MAGIC nighttime events tend to feature the sort of indie buzz bands that infrequently visit Las Vegas. Take the Foundation Room's Filter/S.O.Terik/Pooltradeshow party on Aug. 20, with Zola Jesus and Escort. I never expected to see the former play a local venue, despite our ever-lengthening performer brag sheet, and I'd never paid attention to the latter. But both acts made for a fantastic night of music, especially for a private party filled with people trying to impress one another. 

First up: Zola Jesus, despite her headliner status. When onstage — or, as was the case at the Foundation Room, on the carpet — she's surrounded by a talented backing band that played keyboards, a violin, samplers/synthesizers and drums. But those players will barely register, as Miss Jesus is a force of nature, transfixing her audience. She doesn't spend her time twirling around the stage/carpet, pretending to be casting any sort of musical spell. She doesn't howl like a banshee or indulge in histrionics. She just sings, and sings with a forceful, cleansing projection. On Monday night, she also wandered into the crowd twice, barreling through not unlike 6'3 Dude, though she seemed intent on intimately connecting with a crowd she couldn't see behind the onlookers up front (mostly because of people like 6'3 Dude). But for the most part, she kept to to her small performance space, caught up in the tribal electronic rock of her bandmates, even sharing drum duty with Nick Johnson (a force of nature in his own right). Imagine a more raw Florence Welch ("Shivers"), or what Lisa Gerard might sound like if she was just breaking out today ("Vessel"), and you've got a ballpark estimation of the Zola Jesus vocal experience. She's got her own mojo, of course, and this is why she couldn't get a moment's peace after her and her band's just-long-enough performance. "Can we get a picture?" asked two new fans. She obliged, even took them out to the balcony to do so, likely because she's a polite Midwestern girl who knows just how powerfully her music connects with her audiences.

I nearly left at this point, completely sated from the performance and entirely annoyed the cocktail waitress hadn't returned with my drink order. But a friendly conversation extended into the beginning of the second performance, by New York City's Escort. After a couple of songs and realizing I was dancing more than my sober self usually allows, it hit me: This is live house music. This is dance music for adults. This is a band taking back authentic disco from KC and the Sunshine Band and Diana Ross and everyone who ruined it. And a couple of songs later, the rest of the crowd caught on, too. Arms and hips were flailing about to the fivesome — two percussionists, two keyboardists, and guitarist/bassist/singer Adeline Michéle — and a stiff collection of folks had grown to a throbbing, lively crowd. Michéle egged them on, but not like some cheerleader or hype (wo)man. Furthermore, I like how she wasn't a diva on the mic, the aspiration of so many female vocalists in the dance world. Her singing felt controlled and subtle, but natural and joyful. She lent the electro synth lines warmth and the funk rhythms some soul. She helped the band bridge LCD Soundsystem with West Coast deep house. The numbers with jazz and Latin hints added some welcome color, but it was the 4/4 disco rave-ups, including "A Bright New Life," which drove the audience into a frenzy. Just as the band appeared to end its set, chants for "one more song!" filled the room, and after powwowing, Escort obliged. That scenario repeated itself five minutes later, and for the first time, I forgot I was at an industry party. Fashion conventioneers, much to my surprise, can focus on something other them themselves — when they acknowledge there's someone more interesting and/or fun than them in the room.