Tomos Williams reviews a performance by Tank and the Bangas at the Wales Millennium Centre’s Festival of Voice 2018.
Tank and the Bangas exist in the cracks. Their music certainly isn’t hip-hop, jazz, spoken word, funk or rock, but it’s somewhere in between all of them. Hailing from New Orleans, Tank and the Bangas came to international attention when they won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest in 2017. On Friday night they delivered a glorious, energetic, life-affirming performance in Cardiff as part of the Festival of Voice.
This was live party music at its best; funk grooves, playful and creative musical interplay and two front women with bags of charisma. Tarrica ‘Tank’ Ball and her side-kick Anjelika ‘Jelly’ Joseph on vocals almost stole the show; they have a mesmeric stage presence. This is a band having fun, and it’s completely convincing and infectious.
Tank and Jelly are like a modern day Chuck D and Flavour Flav – Jelly bringing the intensity when she needs to and Tank being the extremely playful trickster – yet they are both also much more than this. They deliver compelling raps without the tiresome machismo of so much male dominated hip-hop, and when they sing in duet, one voice almost echoes the other, or one finishes the sentence of the other without the listener quite knowing who’s doing what.
Tank has roots in the Church of the Deep South (the venue was “hotter than a Mississippi Church”) and can reach back and deliver a melody like Mahalia Jackson, can scat like Cab Calloway, and raps in her own unique style with shades of Kendrick Lamar, and Ladybug from Digable Planets. That’s some armory to have in your locker.
But it’s not all about Tank and Jelly. The band are all consummate musicians – these guys can play. Jonathan Johnson on electric bass takes a soulful solo that releases into a deep funk groove in 11/8. Merell Burckett on keyboards takes a solo spot in 5/4, while Albert Allenback wails like Dave Sanborn (in the best possible way) whenever he’s given the opportunity. Joshua Johnson on drums is the glue that holds it all together. Like all great live bands, the creativity and dynamics of the drums can really shape the music and the bands direction – and Joshua does this effortlessly from behind his kit.
Audience involvement was a big part of the show and was completely natural and in-keeping with the nights vibe. At various points in the night Tank and Jelly had the audience shouting out (in true hip-hop tradition) and dancing in unison, getting low down – as the band literally lay on the stage most of the audience get as low as they can go, too (I was glad the gig was at the clean-floored Weston Studio and not Clwb Ifor Bach…).
The first half-hour is non-stop music, with one song segueing into another; song topics cover religion, Trump’s America, dreams and aspirations, capitalism and self-deprecating love songs. When the band finally pause for breath, the individual band members have their moment in the lime-light, before building the momentum up again. Tank and the Bangas know about the necessary ebb and flow of a complete performance.
Great bands don’t exist in a vacuum, they come out of and are always aware of tradition, and this is certainly true here. Tank and the Bangas’ music is firmly in the tradition of great African-American music, incorporating elements from it while creating something new and original in the process. Obvious recent musical points of reference are The Roots and Snarky Puppy, but they are more fun and less worthy than the former, and far more interesting than the latter.
Kendrick Lamar’s all-consuming influence is also apparent. The more instrument-led material is like an extended version of some of the jazz interludes from To Pimp a Buttefly – but I’m sure Tank and the Bangas were already doing this before the release of that album. Influences can work both ways.
A raucous version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ ends the set, before the band are forced to return for a mellow encore and chorus of Happy Birthday for bassist Johnson (which ended up on the band’s Instagram account).
Festival of Voice is to be commended for bringing Tank and the Bangas to Cardiff, and they are staying in Europe all summer, touring hard. If you get the chance, go and see them.
Tomos Williams is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.