The first time Tank and the Bangas came through East Tennessee, the band played Preservation Pub in Market Square to roughly 20 people.
Sax player Albert Allenback remembers it well, he told me recently.
“There were like, 20 people there, but they were super into it, and it was an awesome show and awesome energy,” he said. “That’s a great venue, and we always enjoyed playing there, because the energy is palpable in that room.”
From those humble origins, the band has grown into one of the most dynamic live groups around, building a funky, high-energy stew of rock ’n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop and soul on the jazz foundations laid in the band’s hometown of New Orleans. Saturday night, Tank and the Bangas will headline the main stage at the Rhythm N’ Blooms festival in Knoxville’s Old City, and despite the accolades and musical accomplishments the band has notched since those sparsely attended shows in its early days, Allenback and his fellow Bangas still relish the unpredictability whenever they get on stage with front woman Tarriona “Tank” Ball.
“It’s hard to describe it, but I just kind of cling to the handrails,” he said. “We’re all on the bus, and I just ride. What it is, is total commitment to the moment. Tank is totally, immediately focused on the present moment — not two seconds ago, and not two seconds in the future. Whatever happens in that moment is right, and I think that’s one of the most valuable aspects any musician or artist can have.
“It’s kind of like a Bob Ross thing: a pinpoint on, ‘We’re here now, and everything we do here and now is right.’ Hopefully, the live show is always about the present moment — the chaos, the joy, the pain, the heartbreak, and it all brings people into the here and now.”
Saturday night, the here and now will be beneath the James White Parkway, where the Cripple Creek Stage will give Tank and the Bangas another notch in its Knoxville cap. From those early shows to a few dozen people to one of the Rhythm N’ Blooms headliners, the band’s career arc has been, from a fan’s perspective, a thrill ride along ever escalating peaks. For Allenback and his bandmates, however, it’s been a slow and steady climb.
The group formed in 2011 in the Algiers section of New Orleans, drawing on Ball’s experience as a slam poet and combining it with the eclectic musicianship supplied by keyboards and horns (Allenback plays both alto saxophone and flute), in addition to standard rock band instrumentation. In 2013, the group released “Thinktank,” but it was the 2017 single “Quick” that put Tank and the Bangas on the map. The song won NPR’s Tiny Desk concert contest, leading Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” to declare, “This band combines R&B with hip-hop’s poetry and rollercoaster storytelling, with a flair and alchemy that could only come from New Orleans.”
Over the past two years, the band has become a mainstay on the festival circuit, playing Coachella, Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival, and in 2018, Rolling Stone named the group one of “10 Artists You Need to Know” — “a secular church experience, with freewheeling improvisational chops and positive vibes.” They paused long enough to make “Green Balloon,” released earlier this month and featuring production duties by singer and pianist Robert Glasper, among others.
“We met him online, and getting to see who he was as a person and work with him was just so cool and surreal,” Allenback said. “He did a solo on the record, and it was amazing. I feel like we learned lessons from that whole session every single day. He’s hilarious, but he’s also a very serious musician who makes very fun music. He’s a super-fun person who doesn’t take himself too seriously, except when he’s improvising. Then, he’s deadly serious.”
In that regard, he complimented the band’s style perfectly. While “Thinktank” was an exuberant introduction to a fledgling startup, “Green Balloon” is a more nuanced work, with the combination of Ball’s spoken word and sultry singing laid over grooves that call to mind old-school hip-hop/R&B classics like Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” or Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate.” The idea, Allenback said, is for it to serve as a snapshot of growth and a glimpse of potential for how much more the band is capable of.
“In my mind, the highest aspiration for an album is for it to be a documentary of how you were feeling and playing,” he said. “For us, we wanted to look at how much we’re learning and how much we thought we knew and use that as a concept to talk about listening to each other and talking to one another and how we treat each other.”
Case in point: “Happy Town,” which kicks off with a “Sesame Street”-style non-sequitur before rolling into a quirky swagger of beats, blips and staccato rhythms. As fun as it is to hear on record, Allenback pointed out, it has the potential to be an entirely different experience life.
“We put a lot of time into it learning to play it live, and as we get even better, it’s probably going to change more,” he said. “It’s got the potential to be absurd live, because it’s a song that has all this material but goes through these changes. I think it’s going to be crazy live, and we’re excited to play it.”
Because, he added, when the band hits a home run, and the audience is eating from the palm of Ball’s hands and the bell of his sax seems to glow red-hot from ferocious playing, it’s like getting off of a roller coaster that’s been fitted with nitrous oxide boosters.
“It takes a second to calm down afterward!” he said with a laugh. “You can’t just go straight home.”