At this week's free show at the new Aloft New Orleans Downtown, the concert mirrored the experience of being online on your phone.
Tank and the Bangas have become one of the best stories in New Orleans music. Their growth as artists and performers has been steady, and success hasn’t come at the cost of their nerve. Instead of remaking “Walmart” again and again or—worse—simplifying their songs to make them more conventional, they’ve asked more of their audiences instead of less. After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2017, they challenged the curious seeing them for the first time at Jazz Fest with an opening 10 minutes free from choruses or obvious hooks to hang on to. It was just as uncompromising when they opened for Lianne La Havas at the Civic in 2016 and started the set with spot-on cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft.”
The band’s musical courage and the promise of a special event prompted fans to line up around the block to get in to see Tank and the Bangas play the bar in the Aloft New Orleans Downtown on Thursday night. Fans shoehorned into the space between the bar and the stage welcomed them like conquering heroes and were there for every twist and turn in the hour-long set, even when it really wasn’t clear if they had segued into a new song or found a side alley to explore in the one they were playing. Before concluding with “Butterflies,” the song that opens their NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Tarriona “Tank” Ball announced, “After this song, we’re going to go outside, get some fresh air, and hug people,” and all three seemed possible (but none happened in the 10 minutes after the set).
The band’s success has almost everything to do with its specific chemistry, vision, and musical accomplishment. Many elements of its sound would fall flat or simply confuse audiences in the hands of other musicians. The arrangements can be almost prog-like in their detours and genre shifts, but the Bangas’ internal compass makes sure that the songs never get lost, even if the journey from the first note to the last takes the scenic route. That circuitous nature, along with Ball’s use of a number of voices, is part of what makes Tank and the Bangas so relevant.
Thursday night, it became clear that the band is the band for the iPhone age as the musical experience they provide mirrors the online experience. Ball’s child-like voice is my least favorite of her delivery methods, but wait a minute and she’ll drop an octave and rap or powerfully sing an R&B passage in diva mode. As she jumps from voice to voice, she changes rhetorical stances as well, speaking/singing playfully then passionately then metaphorically then ironically, and so on. It’s the equivalent of carrying on conversations on Twitter and Snapchat while reading a blog post and following a Reddit thread—experiences that sound ADD-like but feel perfectly natural for the person doing thumbing out thoughts on the phone.
The polyvoiced songs also reflect our own inner dialogues/trialogues/quadralogues as the conflicting voices in Ball’s head all get to represent points of view in her songs. In a moment defined by intersectionality and the interplay of identities, Tank and the Bangas’ performances honor her selves that are visible as well as the nerdier and spiritual ones that aren’t. In the band’s delivery, sound and content, it is in sync with the zeitgeist, and its ability to make the conflicting values and impulses that are in the air at the moment hang together in a joyful form make it sound more 2017/2018 than anyone else I can think of right now.
How is it different? A lack of cynicism. Look at Facebook and you can’t avoid the hostility and disingenuousness that hover over the proceeds like a blimp during a bowl game. One of Tank’s iconic features is her warm smile and the appearance that she’s enjoying the whole experience from her side of the stage as much as fans are from theirs. The lyrics are similarly defined by an undercurrent of wonder and possibility, which is really what we’re looking for as we skitter from site to site, app to app and platform to platform online. We’re searching for something that makes us feel better and gives us hope. Sites, stories, and posts that give us at least a taste of that become magnets for traffic, and bands that give us that get to spend half of the year on tour trying to make the most of the opportunities they’ve earned.
It’s hard to know what the future will hold for Tank and the Bangas because it’s hard to know what the future is for any band. It’s very possible that they’ll fall out of favor not through any fault of their own but because listeners may decide they want more linear songs. It’s easy to imagine a day when we decide we’ve had a circumnavigation OD and prefer more direct ways to experience and think about our world. How Tank and the Bangas will respond to that shift in preferences remains to be seen, but for now, they’re the right band at the right time.