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Banks at First Avenue, 10/8/14

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Mirror selfy for you Minneapolis.

Banks
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When Banks took the stage last night, her sway over some parts of the audience was immediately apparent. Her opening songs were intershot with cheers of appreciation for almost every small or large vocal or physical flourish she did. It was clear from the jump that she was carrying a lot of star power, but it would remain to be seen if she had the performance chops to back it up.

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Banks, along with artists like the Weeknd -- a tourmate from last year -- Spooky Black, PartyNextDoor, and Ellie Goulding, has come to prominence as part of the rise what some have called dark R&B. As with all sub-genre labels, it's an incomplete and debatable categorization, but a few elements of the sound are reliably present. In a nutshell, smooth R&B vocals are backed by dark, heavy electronic tracks, and the songs and lyrical subject matter are often sensually charged (to say the least). Dark R&B is cool, sad, sexy, and you can play it in the club -- especially if you remix it. No wonder it caught on.

Though it's easy to attribute some of the L.A. singer-songwriter's hype to broader music trends, Banks is not quite so simple to pin down. Her vocal style is smooth and gentle, with a sense of vulnerability, but she can pull out more powerful moments. Her writing manages to be both explicit -- lines like "you're so bold while you're watching me moan" don't leave much room for metaphor -- and full of subtext and nuance, giving her a lot of re-listen potential. Banks' production, coming from EDM forces like Schlomo, Sohn, and Lil Silva, is always interesting. Her songs suck you in like a whirlpool -- turbulent, deep and powerful. Its not the most organic sound in the world, but that doesn't stop it from being engaging.

Banks' high production values and emphasis on atmosphere could lead to some worries that her magnetism on record wouldn't transfer to a live show. It doesn't help that this is her first headlining tour, and that she's been preceded by hype from the full list of the usual music blog suspects. Last night's show didn't exactly put those worries to rest, but it did show that Banks has the potential to become something really special. Though she was hampered by sticking too close to the record and a somewhat chaotic stage presence, Banks had the tracks and the charisma to put together a solid outing anyway.

Banks sang with a backing track throughout the set, using it to round out the harmonies and expand the sound on most of her more produced songs. Quite a few times, these pre-recorded vocals dominated. I overheard a few groups in the crowd talking about lip-syncing. I wouldn't go that far -- it was clear that Banks was singing live underneath it all, and her voice stood on its own when its recorded counterpart wasn't there.

All the same, it did detract from the show. Whatever the back-up provided in cohesion was far outweighed by what it took away in spontaneity and just plain, simple live performance. It was clear in the intimate "Someone New" and in the unassisted moments of triumphant songs like "Drowning" and "Begging For Thread" that Banks could hold it down with just a mic -- I wish she'd been allowed to do that more often.

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The strongest portion of the set was kicked off by a long diversion from back-up assisted tracks. Those performances, of songs like "Brain" and "This is What It Feels Like," provided hits that sounded just like they did on the album, but offered little to distinguish themselves live. "Goddess" showed a few moments of brightness, and "Someone New" was one of the night's few really intimate moments. After sharing that she couldn't listen to this song for months after she wrote it, Banks performed the haunting yet light heartbreaker over only an acoustic guitar.

It was a huge departure, as was the subsequent cover of Trey Songz, but it seemed to provide Banks with a little more footing. This was most apparent on "Drowning," one of her most recognizable tracks. It took on a new depth in First Avenue, with the bass sounding like it came from under deep water and Banks' vocals conveying the real terror of seeing love collapse. Guitar riffs replaced synth grooves and added some welcomed rough edges to the very polished sound.

On stage, Banks was striking, dressed in all black, which made her look taller than she already is. Her stage presence was less put together. Her hands and arms moved as if they were possessed, and she slinked from one end of the stage to the other, alternately madcap and sensual. Banks was at her best when she connected with the room most simply and directly, with glances or simply reaching out to touch hands with the front row.

She spoke the audience in mostly adoring terms. Between the set and the encore, I'm not sure if Banks even completely left the stage. After performing a song she said was inspired by The Weeknd, "Stick," she looked out and thanked the "sexy fucking crowd." Banks started to leave the stage, cut back to grab something she forgot (looked like a setlist), and then was gone, about an hour after she arrived.

Critic's Notebook

The crowd: I have never smelled more perfume and cologne and "scents" in a group of people before. I don't really know what to make of this.

Random notebook dump: This makes me feel prematurely aged, but I can't stand it when people have loud conversations amongst themselves at shows while still in the crowd (as opposed to at the bar). Obviously I don't expect the room to be silent like at a symphony, but when the ambient buzz from conversation starts to actually overpower the music, like it did during "Someone New," then it becomes a problem.

Setlist:
Before I Ever Met You
Alibi
This is What it Feels Like
Brain
Goddess
Fuck Em Only We Know
Someone New
Na Na (Trey Songz)
Change
And I Drove You Crazy
Drowning
Waiting Game
Beggin For Thread

Encore
Stick


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