Review: BANKS at D.C.’s U Street Music Hall

Jillian BANKS of BANKS.
Jillian BANKS of BANKS. Photo courtesy of the artist.

WASHINGTON, September 3, 2014 − BANKS is categorized as a singer/songwriter in the tradition of modern R&B. That portrayal is generally accurate as far as it goes. But it only scratches the surface of what she does on stage and doesn’t begin to describe the nature of what she sings.

In reality, while BANKS is the primary producer of her music, calling her simply a singer/songwriter misses the point of what her true intent seems to be; namely that, at her core, she strives to be a superb pop singer.

For Los Angeles native Jillian Banks, her incarnation as BANKS isn’t the kind of superficial endeavor that her current moniker may seem to imply. That’s mainly because of the musical and genre alternatives that have sprung up causing unusual musical branches to form over the years.

At one time, BANKS would likely have been isolated in her chosen career and given very few opportunities to pursue anything genuinely original or distinctive.  But today, it’s hard to imagine her succeeding outside of the current alternative track she’s set up for herself.

Watching BANKS’ recent show at the U Street Music Hall is almost a case study in the difference between the artist as a person and as a performer. She doesn’t waste any time getting into her set.

While she’s singing and proceeding through her set, one can somehow grasp her evolution as a strong performer. As long as the melody is flowing out from her inner core, she radiates such confidence on stage that the audience can easily imagine they are witnessing her as she is crafting her own world.

Sometimes, however, her transitions can seem thematically jarring. She goes from being a confident singer to a rather timid speaker when she talks to the audience.  She’s appreciative to the sold out crowd at UHall, but she’s soft spoken to the point where she sometimes stumbles over her own words.  The comfort level she has on stage evaporates as she transists from song to song.

Oddly, though, her occasional verbal flailing has the effect of enhancing her music and her performance. It’s as if she can only truly articulate her thoughts, observations and feelings when she’s living in the musical realm, a place that enables her full range of expression.  She’s almost methodical in the way she sings, never quite pushing herself while keeping a rather stringent pace throughout.  Along with the alternating harshness and subtlety of her vocals, her live performance confirms the total control and confidence she possesses while she sings.

Indeed, BANKS’ singing is definitely the focal point of her set, while the beats and rhythms of her music serve to highlight her strongest asset. The backing sound she’s crafted definitely has R&B undertones, but they’re somewhat concealed within a modern package.

It’s important to point out that nothing about BANKS’ songs can be regarded as up-tempo, however. Several songs into her set, you notice that the more she gets into a groove, the more everything feels like it’s in slow motion.

BANKS’ output is not really music to dance to. Rather, is more like music to get lost in, which is a positive and not a negative observation. There are hints of electro-pop on the surface of each song, but the rhythmic beats are really what speak to the modern R&B aesthetic BANKS so clearly wishes to claim in each song she performs.

Hers is not a musical package that is engulfed and distributed quickly by the audience. Instead, her performance is absorbed and processed, and that’s appropriate. BANKS’ performance is the world she’s crafted and the world in which she feels at home. Her stage patter is really just killing time until she begins to sing once again, allowing her world once again to flower and unfurl.

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