Open mic nights are all about the unexpected. You never know who’s gonna show up to take the stage — or how a moment of spontaneity might rock your world. At one such New Orleans event back in 2011, the planets aligned.
Tarriona “Tank” Bell rolled in. The vocalist was onsite to perform slam poetry that was already getting her some attention around town. There, she forged new relationships that led to a new musical endeavor.
The band were first Liberated Soul Collective and then BlackStar Bangas before settling on their current name: Tank and the Bangas. With Bell at the fore, the band merges elements of funk, soul, and hip-hop, telling stories with passion and a ferocity that contains both power and wit.
The Bangas are many in number and diverse in style. The current lineup includes Joshua Johnson (drums, musical director), Norman Spence (bass, synth), Jonathan Johnson (bass). Merell Burkett (keys), Joe Johnson (keys), Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph and Kayla Bug Gage (backing vocals), Albert Allenbeck (alto sax), and Etienne Stoffel (tenor sax).
The drummer has been playing since age 3, honing his skills at church and in school bands. Allenback was studying jazz in college when he saw bassist Spence’s flyer looking for musicians. He saw the band play one show at the legendary New Orleans club, Tipitinas, and asked to join the mix. Spence was another longtime player with roots in church performance.
Together, this small army of skillful musicians and background singers create a fusion of soulful sounds that weave through Bell’s vocals, which are all over the map.
There’s a whole cast of characters living in her vocal cords. She can break your heart with a rich soulful bellow, or make you laugh when she delivers some lyrics with a childish sass.
But Bell can also make your head spin as you try to keep up with and decipher her super-fast raps. It’s like Aretha Franklin’s ghost and Nicki Minaj had a fight and then became besties.
What makes the whole package a success is that everyone in the band owns it. There’s no feeling of separation between singer and band. Even when the music contrasts with the vocal offerings, it feels like teamwork, like family.
In their time together, Tank and the Bangas have released one studio album, one live record, and a couple of singles. But that’s been enough to garner a growing fan base and solid praise from music critics.
There are 15 tracks on the band’s 2013 full-length, Think Tank, and they solidified the band’s uniqueness. “WalMart” could be about a bad relationship with the chain store, or an entanglement with a shitty person. Maybe both. Either way, you want to follow it through its five-plus minutes where a funky, plucky bass sets the tone for a slow and steady rap that lulls you to its more bombastic ending.
“The Ass” has a similar message, and is just as minimal, musically. It puts the emphasis on Bell’s storytelling for its duration, which barely breaks the one-minute mark. You can’t not laugh when she starts it off with: “Out of all the parts of the body you could be / I never thought that you, my love, could be the asshole.”
The title of “Themeparks” suggests potential zaniness, but this one is a classic soul journey to the close. It’s classic R&B with Tank providing slow and rich vocals. Behind her, the keyboards and percussion provide a sweeping backdrop that accentuate her back-and-forth range from high to low. While the music wraps around her vocals, the drums keep a steady percussive march that maintains a linear focus.
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If it’s an ass-shaker you want, no problem. “The Brady’s” will keep you moving. It’s a synth-y, jumpy hip-hop-meets-pop track that the band also peppers with some funky soul moments, all while Tank shows off how fast she can spit about family dynamics.
A big coup for the band was winning NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Contest. The Tiny Desk Concert series features intimate shows performed at the desk of Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s All Things Considered. The annual competition may include diminutive furniture, but it’s no small happening. This year’s musical battle saw more than 6,000 musical acts throw hats in the ring, hoping to be crowned victorious. Tank and the Bangas took that honor, with all its bragging rights and the prize of performing their own Tiny Desk Concert.
Another accomplishment this year is the release of the single “Quick.” It’s both silly and serious, telling a tale about a woman maneuvering out of some scary scenarios. A seven-minute video plays it all out, in detail.
Tank and the Bangas are scheduled to play at Valley Bar on Friday, October 6. Tickets are $15 to $18 via valleybarphx.com.