Church. It’s a multiplex term that’s stuck with musician Adia Victoria since childhood, as she was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist in South Carolina. But, moving away from its previous connotations of condemnation and shame, Victoria has reshaped the word to encapsulate her time on stage, redefining it as a healing space for all to see each other as they are, oddities and all.
The sloped ceiling and towering arches of The Chapel provided the Poe-esque atmosphere fit for Victoria’s Ain’t Killed Me Yet Tour on July 5 in San Francisco. Striding onto the dimly lit stage in her red high-heel boots, Victoria joined her band, and the phantasmal croon of her voice floated through the lyrics of “Far From Dixie” as she gently fingerpicked her Fender acoustic guitar.
Drenched in a sea of deep crimson, the intimacy of The Chapel emanated a blanket of closeness. Even the steady stomp of Victoria’s heel could be distinguished during certain moments. Both while singing and speaking, the warmth of her voice soothed the crowd — her natural inclination to share meanings and memories between each song echoed the faithful delicacy of a whispered secret.
After dedicating her next song to anyone else that’s experienced gaslighting, Victoria plucked the strings of her guitar in tune with the grainy shift of shakers, beginning “Mean-Hearted Woman.” Her bared teeth contrasted with the moody rhythm, making her words all the more powerful as she prolonged the chorus, “You made me a mean-hearted woman.” Even her bright red heels couldn’t contain the quake of her stance, quivering back and forth in the darkness of the shaded venue.
Clad in black, the polished grit of her backing band complemented Victoria’s smooth command of the stage. During her cover of Bobbie Gentry’s version of “Parchman Farm,” Victoria’s full-bodied acoustic interlaced with the bluesy riffings of her musical partner Mason Hickman’s electric Fender, pulling them into a magnetic dance that surged into a collective wave of sound from the entire band. Other times, Victoria turned toward drummer Daniel Closser or bassist Jason Harris, leaving the crowd to scan across the capitalized letters of her name neatly painted in white along the center of her guitar strap.
“Head Rot” unleashed another side of Victoria’s seductive flair for leaving a crowd spellbound. Seemingly possessed, her widened gaze peered side to side, animating an unsettling polarity of innocent mischief. A sudden burst away from the microphone shocked her into a heavy guitar rhythm for the band to follow, before another shift left her motionless. Suddenly, only bass and drums resounded as Victoria’s unblinking eyes and outstretched arms glued to the back of the venue. “At this time, I’d like to welcome the ghost of Skip James onto the stage,” Victoria announced, and the audience’s heads turned in search of the summoned spirit.
Resurrected from the building’s previous function as a mortuary, The Chapel maintained a haunting essence that served as an ethereal backdrop for Victoria’s sonic conjuring. It also enhanced the Southern Gothic sounds and themes of Victoria’s craft, which unravel the stitchings of racism, religion and traumatic pasts through lyrical metaphor and occasionally bleed into the grotesque.
This emotional complexity flowed throughout her performance of “Sea of Sand.” A red light stretched horizontally across the back of the stage, slowly rising up along the beams of the high ceiling as Victoria hopefully sang, “If I was a bird, I’d fly away.” Sweetness drifted from her voice as she continued, “But I ain’t no bird so I gotta stay,” beckoning the light to return, her sly mastery for funneling rage through the grace of a breathy melody sending a trickle across the backs of necks.
A stripped-down solo rendition of “Heathen” closed the night, leaving Victoria to command the stage alone with the raw resonance of her acoustic guitar. She left the crowd with the song’s unfaltering question: “But if I am the heathen, then why won’t you leave me alone?” With a sip of whisky, Victoria left the stage having unapologetically created a new, shared memory of church — a reminder for fans to praise who they are and empower even their most bizarre unconventionalities.