Tank and The Bangas: Listen Up to This New Orleans Band on the Rise
By Doug MacCash
One of New Orleans’ bands to watch, Tank and the Bangas just don’t quite fit in a predictable slot. Even the Bangas themselves can’t immediately describe what they do — and that’s exactly why they’re so interesting.
As the band took a break from rehearsal Tuesday (Nov. 15), I posed the seemingly simple question: What do you call the type of music you play? Answers from the seven musicians and singers ranged from rock to folk and gospel. Finally, vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph declared a new genre: Soulful Disney.
At the center of the formidable ensemble is Tarriona “Tank” Ball, a pixie-voiced powerhouse who says she grew up, appropriately enough, on Music Street in New Orleans’ Eighth Ward. Ball was already an award winning spoken word poet before she formed the first incarnation of Tank and the Bangas back in 2011.
One of her first memorable shows was staged in the Pure Beauty Hair Salon on St. Claude Avenue on Valentine’s Day that year. Some audience members report the show was a little rocky. Ball was like a sputtering spark plug, waiting for the right engine.
She didn’t have to wait long. Some of the talented players who would eventually make up the backbone of the Bangas caught the beauty parlor show and recognized the potential. A band was born.
Ball’s worldview was, and remains, somewhat outside of the norm. She co-composes love songs with band members, but they are not of the predictable moon-in-June romantic variety.
In one, Ball expresses her deep-seated desire to be the matriarch of a blended family, just like Mrs. Brady in the saccharine 1970s “Brady Bunch” television show. In another, she equates men’s unseen flaws with defective Wal-Mart merchandise. In yet another, she contemplates the nauseating effects of a roller coaster and how the sensation equates with emotional ups and downs.
The highlight of the high-energy morning show at New Orleans Jazz Fest was the band’s retooling of one of their masterpieces: “Bradys.”
Despite the inherent comedy that colors her lyrics and stage persona, Ball’s tunes bristle with irony and sometimes ache with beauty. When she describes a little girl finding her way to the bus stop for the first time by herself, the melancholy mood is as clear and fragile as a pane of glass.
That mixture of colorful whimsy mixed with hints of underlying menace is the Disney part of Disney soul.
The Bangas are, indeed, very good. Ball’s dad, a disk jockey and French Quarter carriage driver, nicknamed his single-minded daughter for an army tank. Musically speaking, she now seems to be driving one.
During shows, Ball twirls like a tornado as Joseph and fellow vocalist Kayla Jasmine telegraph the attitude of the lyrics with theatrical pantomime. The three young women’s harmonies are never less than spectacular.
Over time, the young men at the back of the stage have continued to coalesce. With a driving drum and bass, supple keyboards, searing guitar, saxophone and even flute, the Bangas are a beast onstage. They may not be getting rich just yet, but they’re busy, and they seem satisfied with the group’s musical progress.
Though, as flutist Albert Allenback points out, commitment has its complications. To try to conduct a normal life while pursing a musical career “is crazy,” he said.
The upside is that the amount of life the members have already invested in the band seems to raise the ante onstage, he said.
“It makes every performance more impactful,” he explained. Each appearance “has to be very good because of everything we had to do to be here right now.”
No show is casual, each show requires “rising to the occasion.”
Freedia led the soaking audience in the singing of Prince classics “I Would Die 4 U” and “Purple Rain.”
Tank and the Bangas have been in the regular Crescent City club and festival circuit for the past few years, offering up their artistic performances at unexpected times and locales; their passionate cover of John Lennon’s “Come Together” on an Oyster Fest afternoon comes to mind. Their thunderous, off the hook rendition of “The Bradys” at Treme Fest is another.
They are untraditional, yet absolutely adherent to the New Orleans heritage of experimentation and invention that pulses through the veins of the city’s music.
Who knows? Tank and the Bs may be on the brink of broader success. The group recently opened for Big Freedia and backed the bounce superstar in a series of East Coast performances.
“We played at the freakin’ Blue Note, man,” said keyboardist Norman Spence, referring to the legendary New York jazz club.
Ball and Joseph sang with Grammy-winner Norah Jones on a few recent high-profile dates, including “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” The band collaborated with the celebrity-magnet Preservation Hall Jazz Band at last month’s Voodoo Fest, and are preparing to record a new album, which keyboardist Joe Johnson described as “pretty abstract, frankly.”
Abstract? No kidding.
But before then, the band is preparing for an experimental show with an “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” theme at the ultra-hip Music Box Village on Friday (Nov. 18).
Ball’s description of her concept for the Music Box gig seems to also apply to a promising future for the band.
“I always loved the (Disney) movie ‘Alice in Wonderland,'” Ball said. “Alice is really symbolic to me about where you want to be in your life, knowing all the different places it can take you. At times you really can feel small; at times you can feel big, on top of the world.”