Zoo Animal CD Release Party with Red Pens, His and Her Vanities, and Red Pens at the 7th Street Entry

Holly Newsom of Zoo Animal in a photo by Erik Hess at a show at 7th Street Entry in November, 2009

The lineup for Zoo Animal’s CD release party at 7th St. Entry couldn’t have been more promising, with Hildur Victoria, His and Her Vanities, Red Pens fleshing out the headlining band’s big night. Zoo Animal’s second self-titled album boasts bigger vocals and showcases a darker side than on their debut Young Blood, and the maturity of the album shows it.

Hildur Victoria opened up the night to an almost empty floor, but as Margaret Lane, lead vocalist and guitarist, drove hard into the set, the crowd quickly thickened. Lane, who by now has gained a reputation for her on-stage passion, didn’t disappoint as she belted out the haunting jams from the band’s latest Herringbone E.P., showcasing the sumptuous compositions for which the indie quartet has become known.

In between songs, Lane tuned her guitar and took swigs of beer to sustain her. Always engaging the crowd with personal blips, at one point, after playing an especially aggressive and dramatic song, Lane divulged: “…My mom said, ‘I can’t listen to your music because it makes me want to die’, and I was like, ‘Oh, Momma… that ain’t good, we want you to feel happy”.

Regardless, Hildur Victoria’s music isn’t exactly feel-good, and Lane followed up her statement by introducing a new song, “Ghost”, wherein Lane abandoned the audience and knelt on the stage, alternating between breathing and screaming into the microphone. In an exhibition of stellar vocal power, Lane’s crystalline mezzo-soprano was simultaneously fragile and richly powerful. The band announced they would be recording a new album in a month, and found an audience that had fallen in love with them (either for the first time or all over again).

His and Her Vanities were the second opener, saying they had been invited by the Red Pens. After hearing their first song, this made sense; their post-punk guitar distortions sounded a lot more like the Red Pens’ sonic styling than like Hildur Victoria’s dark opulence or Zoo Animal’s guttural rawness. Either way, the crowd was still feeling it, and H&HV rocked on out, seeming happy to be so well-received in Minneapolis (the band is based in Madison, Wisconsin). Halfway through the set, vocalist and guitarist Terrin Reimer stated that it had been six years (“Six years, man!”) since the band had played the Entry.

By the time Zoo Animal took the stage, the audience was ready for them, and the indie trio settled in for a long set. “So we’re just gonna play the whole CD, straight through, if that’s okay,” Holly Newsom, lead vocalist and guitarist, announced to an ebullient crowd. And play it through they did.

Anyone who has seen Zoo Animal live knows enough to expect a dynamic performance, as Newsom seems to rely more on raw emotion than instrumental styling. Newsom’s hands flew over the guitar strings almost as an afterthought, and her big voice, at once soulful and vulnerable, stunned the audience into a quiet as the band played.

Given the subject matter confronted in many of Zoo Animal’s songs, it almost seems trite to compare their performance Friday night to something like religion, but there is no other analogy that fits. Playing live, Zoo Animal is anything but solemn. (In her utterly approachable way, Newsom broke up the set with cracks about allergy snot.)  But the energy that Newsom, along with drummer Thom Burton and bassist Tim Abramson, bring to the stage is unmistakably transformational. You get the feeling you’re being let in on a confession, or, better, are part of one.

If the intensity of the performance was weighing on the band, they didn’t show it. But after the fourteenth song (on a 15-song album), Newsom declared to the crowd: “We have one more song, and then that’s it, okay? No, really, not trying to be big or whatever, but we just played fifteen songs, so this is gonna be it, and then I’m gonna go backstage and have a nervous breakdown.”

They played. The audience was as captivated as a three-year-old with a slinky. I can’t remember the last time concert-goers were so quiet for the music. When the set was over, the band (true to form) exited the stage without any bowing or airs.

By the time the Red Pens took over, a sizeable chunk of the crowd had taken off—satisfied enough by Zoo Animal, maybe, but they missed a heady performance from duo Howard Hamilton and Laura Bennett, who treated the remaining folks to a chill, fantastic set.

For the band whose furious, rhythmic sound has been compared to Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain, their performance Friday night was absolutely dance-worthy. Bennett and Hamilton are each such frenzied musicians that at times they seem to be dueling for air time; somehow, though the pair look like they’re having a crazy jam session, their sound is never superfluous and always brilliantly looped. They’ve got the edge of experimenters who know exactly what they’re doing.

If the lineup was promising, the execution was beyond satisfying, proving to be a well-rounded night for those who managed to see all the bands show their chops.

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