Big Things from a 'Tiny Desk'
From 'Tiny Desk' to larger venues, Tank and the Bangas carves its own musical path
NORTH ADAMS — NPR's "Tiny Desk" videos hold a lot of weight in the music world. Staged behind the work space of "All Songs Considered" host Bob Boilen, these cramped concerts include eclectic up-and-comers and industry titans. Among others, Gary Clark Jr. and Weezer have stopped by the Washington D.C. office in recent weeks.
So, when Tank and the Bangas unanimously won the 2017 Tiny Desk contest, beating out more than 6,000 competing acts, the New Orleans band gained some serious clout.
"It was the turning point in every single way that you could imagine," the band's founder and front vocalist, Tarriona "Tank" Ball, told The Eagle during a recent phone interview.
Since its public radio triumph, the band that blends spoken word, funk, soul, hip-hop and rock has appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" and earned a record deal. "Green Balloon" (UMG Recordings) was released on May 3 and is the group's first album since "Think Tank" in 2013. The band's accompanying tour will stop in North Adams on Saturday night for a Courtyard C concert that follows Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's 20th anniversary "block party" — a night of art openings, live music and lawn games.
"Everybody just had more of a hand in it, for sure," Ball said of comparing the processes behind the two records.
While Albert Allenback (saxophone and flute), Merell Burkett Jr. (keyboard), Joshua Johnson (drums) and Norman Spence II (bass and keyboard), among other collaborators, may have played large roles in generating the band's unique sounds on the record, Ball is undoubtedly the force behind the group. The New Orleans native's lyricism can flow from playful to poignant within a verse. For example, she references some of her childhood passions, such as "Kool-Aid packs and Disney, `Lizzie McGuire' and `One Saturday Morning' on the weekends," in "Ants," one of the singles off of "Green Balloon." Later in the verse, however, she reflects on the need for this consumption during her youth: "I need more space than thoughts can give me / more sky than God provides me / and TV so I won't get lonely."
Ball also contemplates more recent times, when attention on her and the band has led them to parties where money is in abundance. "Dope Girl Magic" mocks materialism.
"I leveled up, leveled up, leveled up," the chorus goes.
"I like what they have and all, but it's really not for me," Ball said. "But it's fun to make up these characters that deem these things to be so incredibly important, especially when you get up there and you find you really don't need it."
Tank and the Bangas was born from the open mic scene, and Ball's lyrics and delivery draw heavily from her slam poetry background. After appearing on HBO's "Brave New Voices" program in her teens, she helped Team SNO (Slam New Orleans) win the National Poetry Slam championships in 2012 and 2013 while she was in college. Her slam poetry experiences guide her stage presence, which melds choreography, improvisation and passion.
"People wouldn't believe it, but I think that's where a big part of my theatrics comes from because that world can be quite theatrical if you're in it," she said.
For instance, the band's "Tiny Desk" concert opens with Ball pretending to reel in a fishing line and guzzle milk as he goes through the food and beverage items listed at the beginning of "Boxes and Squares." During the set, Ball is donning a patterned shirt and pants, the latter of which features dozens of bananas. Her bold stage attire stems from her time living in an Indianapolis apartment complex during high school, according to multiple sources. Her family had evacuated New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. In their temporary home, Ball found a room filled with donated clothes, which she soon mined. The experience led to an affinity for thrift shopping and sartorial experimentation. Her group takes similar risks sonically, generating an experience that defies labels but honors New Orleanians' propensity to party.
"I would definitely tell people to come with an open mind and don't try to categorize what we're doing up there, only try to feel," she said. "If you try to categorize it, you'll be perplexed the whole time."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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