If Banks is indeed a goddess — as her debut album’s title posits — she is certainly a pagan deity of death, or, perhaps, the overlord of a type of toxic love most of us hope never to face. The songstress proved as much at her show at the Theatre at Ace Hotel Friday night (Sept. 29), delivering a performance soaked in venom and vulnerability.
After two underwhelming openers — the first channeled Logic and Rae Sremmurd under the moniker A. Chal, then DJ Dahi treated the audience to a set more suited for a club than a concert hall — Jillian Banks took the stage accompanied by two identical twin dancers, her body draped in a black Victorian mourning veil that elicited shrieks of “Queen!” from her audience. Clad in thigh-high boots and a black skirted garment slit up each side to her hips, Banks exuded a dominatrix vibe as she sang into a vocoder, creating an auto-tune-like echo behind her vocals before launching into “Poltergeist” off her 2016 album “The Altar.” The effect offered a fitting warm-up to the headlining set.
Throughout Banks’ performance, the singer’s vocals were significantly more difficult to understand than on her recorded music, although whether this was due to mumbling enunciation or imbalanced levels is difficult to say. Even if you couldn’t understand the words, however, the lyrics had a sharpness to them, each syllable and beat as taut as a drum.
After the rap-like verses of “Trainwreck,” Banks blew the audience away with her first major hit, “Waiting Game,” which gained her notoriety after it was used in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and the soundtrack to the film “Divergent.” To accent the track’s main backbeat, which consists of Banks humming a rhythm on a loop, she and the dancers mimed being stabbed, or perhaps having their hearts ripped out, before jerkily swinging their arms like pendulums. As “Waiting Game” faded out, Banks transitioned into “This Is What It Feels Like,” tracing her hands up and down through the air as she implored all in attendance to, “Bring it down / Bring it up.”
Banks’s command of her audience was undeniable: the entire orchestra seat section was on its feet, with fans screaming lyrics and obediently chanting choruses as she held the mic out to them on songs like “Drowning” and “Crowded Places.” Drenched in red light that colored her pale skin until she looked like a literal demon, Banks matched the precise, marionette-like dance movements of her twin dancers, who wore gauzy yet burqa-like outfits and sported long, blonde ponytails in stark opposition to Banks’ own dark locks.
Without her backup dancers, however, who absented the stage for songs like “Crowded Places,” which showed Banks’ softer side, and “Gemini Feed,” which saw her almost spitting the lyrics, the show lost a bit of its steam. One wonders whether leaving them off stage for “Beggin’ For Thread,” one of Banks’ biggest hits, may have contributed to its falling a bit flat compared to some of the other deeper cuts.
About halfway through the show, with “Better,” Banks’ voice began to sound a little tired, coming across huskier than it did early on in the set. In fairness, the singer has been playing shows in support of “The Altar” since February, and she still has two months in Europe left before the tour concludes. Although she seemed to rally for the next three songs, by the time she reached the penultimate song, the huskiness had returned.
Her fans didn’t seem to notice, however, as they whipped their arms back and forth, with more than a few couples exhibiting uninhibited PDA. Between “Drowning” and “Judas,” her “ghosts” took to the stage for a dance interlude, their interlocking movements and a strobe light creating a hallucinatory effect before Banks returned to the stage, with smoke-tinged red lights emulating the fires of hell.
“Haunt” closed out the set, ending with a gnarly and whammy bar-heavy guitar chord, but Banks returned to the stage for an encore amid deafening chants from the audience. Silhouetted by two retina-burning blue lights, which pulsed with the beat, Banks writhed to the opening strains of “27 Hours,” and treated the audience to her newest song “Underdog,” which was released Thursday. The new track brought some “Crazy In Love”-style bravado to Banks’ ordinarily dark tones along with some literal snarls.
As Banks built to the finish, you half-expected a human sacrifice to take place, with Banks and her dancers serving as priestesses to some horrifying deity. But the three women simply struck a pose, let the lights drop — casting them in darkness — and left, consigning their worshippers to a return to reality.