At times it’s hard to tell whether Tarriona Ball is the frontman of a ten-piece band or the greatest fourth grade teacher on earth.
Equal parts Kendrick Lamar, equal parts Mr. Rogers in oversized patchquilt pants, Ball fronts Tank & The Bangas as a woman joyfully possessed by the moment, one that is both inarguably and deservedly hers.
It’s an unlikely road to the top for anyone this day and age. In the case of Tank & The Bangas, the break came when NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2017 saw them beat out some seven thousand submissions for the right to host their own session, one they capitalized on so fully even industry giants like Anderson Paak dubbed it “life changing.” Paak’s assessment appears spot on as Ball and her nine piece rhythm section used Thursday night’s sold out show at the landmark Fillmore Auditorium as a tune-up for their upcoming set at BottleRock Festival in Napa, the first of a string of summer festival dates before embarking on a four month European tour.
There’s a boldness and accompanied freedom hinging on lunacy in Tank’s set, what probably should be considered faux pa by reasonable industry standards is forgiven on the spot for being executed so downright ecstatically. The show opens with a screaming electric guitar solo rendition of the star spangled banner, among the most inexorably cliché stage antics on record- save perhaps for the relevance of it coming on the day of the NFL’s absurd ruling that players will be made to stand for the national anthem next season. The neon-clad crowd goes berserk as Tank takes the stage at the zenith, bathed in the fluorescent glow of a sea of cell phones.
What follows is a 75 minute set of tireless and masterfully executed electric wildness, held together only by the alternatively calm and reassuring voice of a woman unquestionably in charge. A former slam poetry national champion, Tarriona’s seamless self-assurance, infectious playfulness, and spontaneously combustive stage presence is a kick to the head with a glittery shoe. The band is nearly six years old, thus no strangers to the arrangements, complex and jazzy at times, then alternatively and just as effortlessly neo soul or gangster rap. Songs last a single verse or ten minutes, without a single backing track to hold to, surrendering full license and trust to a well oiled rhythm section.
Ball is a self-described storyteller, forced to flee from Hurricane Katrina, from which a wealth of her material and identity was born. There’s an authenticity people pay millions for and fail to achieve in her earnestness, it is both childlike and other-worldly, something backing vocalist “Jelly” Joseph brands “soulful Disney,” and the audience feasts on it. One gets the sense Tank’s followers are a comfortable bunch- mid show I climb the stairs to take in a few songs from the balcony, nearly tripping over a woman inexplicably in full meditation, eyes closed and palms up with a glowing Kindle in her lap.
As the set grows long, Tank summons all eleven hundred people to crouch to their knees, as the band members lie flat on the stage, rolling around with their key-tars and saxophones like naptime defectors in an elementary classroom, only to spring up in unison and launch directly into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a downright blasphemous cover for anyone but the most daring and/or oblivious (exception to Robert Glasper.) They own it, closing to thunderous applause and affirming there may be no one that won’t leave a Tank & The Bangas gig without feeling they’ve also been given a lesson in practicing joy.
// Photography by Ashley Batz.