July 6 in Washington, D.C. is the kind of day where stepping outside feels like walking into the embrace of a warm, damp blanket made from interwoven fibers of heat and humidity. Even at 8pm, long after the sun has sunk behind the rows of colorful brick apartments and bars that line both sides of U Street, any activity more taxing than sitting still and blinking is enough to produce beads of perspiration.
Still, a little bit of heat isn’t nearly enough to deter waves of determined concertgoers making their way down dusk-blue streets towards the nondescript entrance to U Street Music Hall. Groups of girls, their hands marked with large black X’s, stumble excitedly down the carpeted stairs to the venue, arms wrapped around each other, in sets of two and threes. An hour earlier, the line to enter stretched halfway down the block. Inside the crowded club, an anxious buzz has settled over the room and risen above the heads of the sold out crowd, flitting in and out of narrow spaces between tightly packed bodies slowly edging closer to the scratched and worn wood planks of the stage.
Some impatient fans take to Twitter, their pleas oddly reminiscent of the famous Princess Leah line from Star Wars Episode IV. “Please hurry, my feet hurt”…you’re my only hope.
Suddenly, there is movement in the back of the dark stage. Beneath ringing screams of delight from the audience, the first few notes of an opening song ascend through the commotion.
Zella Day has arrived.
Long before nation-wide tours and performances on Conan, Zella Day Kerr, more commonly known as Zella Day, was entertaining patrons from the age of 9 at a family owned coffee shop in her hometown of Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona. Pinetop-Lakeside is tiny community with just over 4000 residents situated a little over an hour from the New Mexico state line and bordered by a lengthy stretch of arid ground that stretches out to Petrified Forest National Park. After growing up surrounded by this expanse, it’s hard not to imagine the western landscape of her childhood having an influence on Zella Day’s songwriting.
Even for the audience, crammed between the dark walls and low ceiling of U Street Music Hall, her music, a mix of pop vocals and indie rock influences, produces a feeling akin to standing in the center of the sweeping yellow and white sands that make up a vast desert.
On Sweet Ophelia, a sparse intro interspersed with soft, beautiful melodies gives way to a powerful, vocally driven chorus that tears across the room like cracks in bone-dry ground. During Shadow Preachers, the tambourine clinks along like the tail of a rattlesnake until it is tossed into the air and snatched up by the crowd.
Then there’s Zella Day herself. Like a flag caught in a storm, her slight frame bends and waves in all directions. Her arms frequently plunge into the outreached hands of the fans nearest the stage, stopping occasionally to grasp onto set of fingers before letting them slip slowly out of her reach. They drink up every second of it and leave smiling. After a long hot night, their thirst has been quenched.
Article written by: James Saulsky
Photos taken by: James Saulky