Occasionally, an artist will have the right combination of talent, aesthetic, connections and timing for stardom to seem almost guaranteed. Los Angeles-bred singer-songwriter Jillian Banks, who performed at U Street Music Hall on Friday, certainly seems to fit that bill.
Banks (who uses her last name as a mononym) emerged just last year, releasing a steady stream of songs that combine the bared emotions of Fiona Apple with the hazy, electronic-R&B instrumentation of the Weeknd and the blue-eyed soul of the XX. It’s a combination that quickly gained her a solid online following, a record deal with Capitol’s Harvest Records imprint and plenty of media buzz.
On Friday, Banks justified that buzz with an impressive set that morphed her moody, subdued songs into a visually and sonically arresting rock show, complete with the strobes, spotlights and smoke machines used to create atmosphere at warehouses and arenas. No song typified the transformation more than “Warm Water,” which is a synth-kissed slow dance on the record but an acoustic, adult-contemporary jam on stage.
Banks plays the chanteuse well, draped in black and making lithe, expressive movements as she paced the small stage. Her voice was smoky, sultry and syrupy, with a subtle, melismatic quiver — whether due to nerves or for effect — that imbued her songs with a sense of intimacy. Too often, however, her voice was obscured by her two-piece backing band, or she was over-reliant on backing tracks.
No matter: The sold-out crowd was engaged and attentive. Every song was met with a new swell of recognition, every entreaty to put their hands up or to sing along eagerly obliged. “All songs start with just me and the keyboard,” she told the crowd, before launching into “Fall Over” with that exact setup. Someone screamed out “I love you” and she squeaked out, “I love you, too.”
“You guys are making me hot,” Banks laughed at one point, a knowing double entendre about both the humidity of the subterranean venue and the seductive nature of her performance. Hair concealing half her face, a crop-top showing a bit of skin beneath a flowing black cloak, her look mirrors her sound in its mastery of suggestion; she is definitely more Lorde than Miley.
After performing almost the entirety of her catalogue (along with a respectful if punchless cover of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”), Banks returned to the stage for a two-song encore. “My family’s here, so we have to do more, right?” she teased. In fact, about a dozen friends and family members were ensconced in a small VIP area: a strange sight at U Hall, but not at the venues she’ll be playing soon enough, which are almost certain to be bigger.
Kelly is a freelance writer.