Tanks and the Bangas have a gift for physically engaging getting their audiences throughout their shows.

tank and the bangas photo for My Spilt Milk by Steph Catsoulis
Tarionna "Tank" Ball, by Steph Catsoulis

This year, Tank and the Bangas moved audiences and moved bodies more consistently than most performers in New Orleans. They have catapulted to a new level of stardom following their NPR Tiny Desk Competition win, and their sets have become both more chaotic and more tightly rehearsed, but with an energy that keeps the audience constantly and almost involuntarily dancing.

I’ve been attending their shows for years, and while their pre-NPR-win shows were still high energy and unique, they felt as though the set had more room to breathe, and the band was still finding the exact direction each show would go in. Now, it is clear that they have a tighter grip on the flow of their crafted, chaotic energy. Their sets are now more practiced and mastered, but that doesn’t make them any less high energy or unique. Each show feels distinctly intimate, so much so that the crowds clearly feel comfortable enough to move their bodies freely.

The band began its December 12 show at The Howlin’ Wolf with “Crazy,” and it’s one of their most high energy songs. It set the tone for the audience to jump around with them for the duration of the show, and the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Levitate” further excited the crowd. The setlist was very similar to one they’ve been touring with, but part of Tank and The Bangas' gift right now is to make a very familiar--to them--setlist feel special and intimate.

As they moved into “Quick,” the song that won them the NPR competition, they kept it enough the same to attract listeners who recognize them from that, but changed it enough to make the performance feel alive. It was recognizable but hard to predict and sing along to. The band slowed down and dragged out the song, repeating “Oh my god, my goodness gracious" until it felt like an entirely different song. While that isn’t always ideal, Tank and The Bangas were attentive and in tune with the audience, so much so that everyone in the crowd followed along diligently and never stood still.

The audience oscillated between being irrelevant to the performance and the most crucial part of it. As an audience member, this created a level of both anonymity and vitality, and everyone begins to work together as a unit. Even veterans of their shows acted like they were is experiencing the band and its relationship to the audience for the first time.

Tank and The Bangas build an energy that feels impossible to not dance to. Their power is in accessing the audience’s relationship to their own body. Their unpredictability and fervor is contagious and seems to overstimulate the senses just enough that the only release is through dance. Their sets are genre-blending and fast-paced, but the underlying connection through it all is that it moves the audience to movement. At their shows, they jump from one thing to the next so quickly it gives you little room to think or be self-conscious about anyone else besides you and your own body.

Even though they were the headlining act, the set was only about 40 minutes, and was close to the setlist they’ve been using as an opening act, but it felt tight and complete as it was. They treated their New Orleans crowd as they would any other crowd, but that didn’t make the set feel disingenuous. Of all of the individual audiences I’ve been a part of at their shows, not one has ever felt the same, and each has been given a unique attention.

Nearing the end of the set, they invited audience members on stage and performed Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song fit into a tumultuous genre hybrid of funk, spoken word, hip hop, and soul, and here they attempted to layer this even further by adding grunge tone that their primarily millennial fan base resonates with. Everyone on stage appeared to be between 20 and 30, and jumped and thrashed with a frustration that is most pronounced in early adulthood. The stage, and venue at large, became a place find refuge in one’s own body.