Dallas synthpop sweetheart Taylor Rea is no stranger to the stage. Since 2010 when she joined the electronic outfit Ishi, she's been one of the most recognizable names in the local scene. Rea has worked venue and festival stages high and low in this city. In 2011, when Rea and guitarist Rob Bastien left Ishi due to creative differences, Zhora was born. The more indie-pop-structured outfit has seen plenty of success since the split. But few of their gigs have been as important to Rea as this past Saturday at Trees, opening for one of her heroes, '80s pop icon Terri Nunn and her band Berlin.
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It's pretty common to spot everyone's favorite Deep Ellum troubadour at a Zhora show. Neighborhood piano man, Bob, is by his own estimation, Rea's biggest fan. In line outside of the venue, when asked what he loved most about the ingenue's music, he replied without hesitation, "Everything."
Inside, curbing pre-show jitters by watching the crowd file in from the roped off upstairs mezzanine, Rea took great comfort in hearing this.
"I usually get nervous and kind of stressed before a show," says Rea, prepping her wardrobe trappings for the evening, "These last couple of shows I've had to just shrug it off my shoulders."
Nerves are understandable. For the last month and a half or so, Zhora has been a one woman live show. Though the group itself still a collaborative process, Rea's found more show scheduling flexibility in going it alone behind the Korg and mic. New, grooved out and stripped down arrangements of Zhora material make these intimate sets all that much more entrancing live.
"Adam Pickrell, who produces all my music, will send me a beat. That's how the process starts," says Rea. "But if I really want my mind blown, I'll send it to Tiger Darrow. Her songwriting is so structured. ... Mine is not as much."
Darrow is a highly accomplished 20-year-old actress/musician/classically trained dancer and Dallas native currently living in New York, and she has clearly helped push Rea to new creative heights.
George Quartz opened up the show. As he emerged from an atrophied haze onstage as part of his performance, Rea related her meeting earlier that night with one of her idols.
"I geeked out already. I went up to [Terri Nunn] and told her that I just had to say I loved her. ... She was really sweet.
"Their soundcheck was amazing. They did 'Animal,' and she looked right at me and sang to me," Rea says, clutching her chest, a little overwhelmed.
"When I was asked to open for them five months ago, I was at work, and 'Take My Breath Away' was the only Berlin song on the jukebox. I was so excited, I just played it over and over all night," Rea says.
When it was time for Zhora to take the stage, the curtain was drawn open to roaring applause and cascading technicolor lights. Now wearing a black catsuit, a gold cape, silver metallic fringe around her neck and neon orange warpaint, Rea was a fierce and beautiful cosmic siren, front and center. Where George Quartz's mind-bending theatrics and grandiose stage presence perplexed and intrigued the crowd, Zhora's bare-bones eloquence and ethereal melodies transfixed them.
"I'm from Dallas, Texas," Rea said. "You just don't know the energy I'm getting from you all. Do you feel it too?" Judging by the cheers, they did.
It took some time to get the mix right. The bass was a little high, the vocals a little low. But after a few songs, things leveled out and the room was completely entranced by her every move. The highlight of her set was the latest Zhora single, "Lights." The dreamy, 808-laced track kept the crowd in a collective sway and chatter-free. By the time she was done, the audience didn't seem ready to let her go just yet. Fans could be spotted holding the drawn curtain back to snap a photo of Rea.
They'll have plenty of chances. Taylor Rea has a long career on the stage ahead of her. In its latest incarnation, Zhora is at an all-time creative high, and 2014 is shaping up to be a breakout year. But on this night, Rea was learning, watching Berlin meet her lofty expectations.
"I see myself in her because I still want to be doing this at her age, and looking as hot as she does. She's definitely an inspiration to me," Rea says.
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Terri Nunn slithered and howled across the stage as the power behind her voice filled Trees from floor to ceiling. As gorgeous and enchanting as ever, she whipped her perfectly coiffed blonde locks to every cue from her band. The crowd stood enraptured before her.