Their Show at The Music Box's new permanent location on Friday was frenetic and a lot of fun.

Walking into The Music Box’s new permanent digs in the Bywater is like entering a post-apocalyptic shantytown. It’s exciting to stand amidst the seemingly slap-dash “musical architecture;” jerry-rigged structures that conveniently double as instruments. The feeling has been described more than once as a 12-year-old’s (wet) dream, but that doesn’t do justice to the spookiness of the leering, spindly treehouses and ramshackle huts that pepper the venue’s cramped grounds.

The Music Box’s general aesthetic owes more to The Wicker Man or even Saw than to Willy Wonka. In fact, I’m almost positive one of the instruments—a gazebo mounted above a basin of dirty wonder and decked out with rusty horns that emit steam engine noises when you pull on the levers above them—is a dutiful reimagining of the torture machine from The Princess Bride.

On Friday, Tank and the Bangas (and friends) seemed very much at home in the brand new space, soaking in the steam punk vibes around them. The ambiance added a pleasant undercurrent of menace to the experience.  It felt as though the whole thing could come tumbling down at any moment, clearing the way for Mad Max to speed through in his yellow Interceptor and save the day.

music box photo for my spilt milk by alex rawls The Music Box, by Alex Rawls

Surprisingly (at least to people like me who had never been to The Music Box before), things ran quite smoothly. The music itself, while not always entirely tonal, was texturally beautiful.  Aside from Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s lead vocals, occasional backup singing from Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph, and some sparse stylings from keyboardist Merell Burkett, most of the sound was a direct product of band members’ interactions with the architecture. Albert Allenbeck, for instance, traditionally plays alto sax and flute, but rarely did so during the set, spending much of his time fiddling with the levers on the aforementioned torture machine.

The rest of the instrumentation was even more difficult to discern. Percussion was everywhere, with bells ringing out from a massive, fabric-covered chime, unexpected rhythms reverberating from walls, floorboards, railings, pots, and pans, and even a brief appearance from the local Black Magic drumline. Harmonically, tones and textures bled into each other, making it very tough to figure out where everything was coming from.

This phenomenon isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Getting hit with a wall of sound and not knowing exactly why or how can feel almost like magic. Another interesting effect of this sonic multiplicity is that everyone at the show has a slightly different experience depending on where they are in relation to the various features. While this is true to some extent at every show, it’s much less of a concern when all the sound is coming from closely grouped performers on a stage or from speakers above it. Mostly, though, the lack of a single acoustic sweet spot is liberating, since it means no single piece of crowd real estate is significantly more valuable than another.

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A traditional band probably would have struggled with the novel sensory overload at their fingertips, but Tank and the Bangas are anything but traditional. Their sound, self-described as “Disney Soul,” is a manic jumble of genres, from jazz to funk to spoken word poetry, which lends itself much better to live performance than studio recording.

Their sets at more conventional venues usually consist of a mix of creative covers and original material from their sole studio album Think Tank (2013).  The songs are all good—some are even great—and all the band members are excellent musicians, but the real draw is Tank’s star power. Supremely confident and even more eccentric, she struts around the stage, punctuating the music with witty jabs and over-the-top affectations. On Friday, Tank was more subdued than I’ve ever seen her, or maybe she just seemed that way in relation to everything going on around her.

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If Tank and the Bangas seemed suspiciously comfortable with the unconventional instruments and atmosphere surrounding them, it’s probably because they were. The band has played The Music Box before in its previous iterations as a “roving village." The “instruments” aren’t exactly the same, but the underlying principles of exploration and creativity remain.

From the start of their set on Friday, it was obvious that they had an ambitious vision for their performance. The sound was eclectic, to say the least, with nods to Missy Elliot, Ocarina of Time, and good old New Orleans Bounce, with queen diva Big Freedia herself coming out for an exciting but brief cameo.

The spectacle was even more bizarre. The set was supposed to tie together as “Alice Lost,” an experimental musical “play” inspired by Alice In Wonderland. Mostly, though, it was just absurd. In addition to the core band, the set featured three very talented dancers in tutus and leotards (and at one point, Trump and Hillary masks), a fight between a man in a shark suit and a man in a bear suit (the bear won) set to Pokémon battle music, and a mixed group of kids and adults wandering around glued to their phones until they all dropped dead (or at least pretended to) because technology is bad.

music box photo for my spilt milk by alex rawls The Music Box, by Alex Rawls

 

The de facto centerpiece of the performance was a phone booth, a remnant of earlier Music Box incarnations, where Tank spent most of her time singing into the phone. The “phone line” fed into a spinning Leslie speaker above it, warping its sound. The booth was also where Freedia spent most of her short performance, which was unfortunate because the inability to move around muted her colorful personality. Even so, the show had enough flare (maybe even too much) all on its own, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal.

A less talented and daring band could never have pulled off a show this ridiculous, but Tank and the Bangas made it work. At the end of the night, I left feeling somewhat confused and decidedly over-stimulated, but definitely satisfied. The visual content wasn’t always comprehensible and the topical stuff definitely felt a little forced, but overall, it was fun and fascinating enough that none of that really mattered.