This image is from the official Tank and the Bangas website.

Rarely is the energy of a whole band so understandable in a phone call. Perhaps that is one of the most special parts about Tank and the Bangas: They can communicate their energy full of hope, love and strength through any medium, down to storytelling over the phone. Joshua Johnson, the group’s drummer and musical director, took a moment to chat with The Daily a few days ahead of the band’s show at The Blind Pig on Wednesday, Sept. 22. 

The band energy builds strongly off of the poetic roots of lead singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball. As Johnson told me, when performing live, “To me, it keeps her grounded in that space, that ‘I know what I’m doing,’ and it’s like a confidence thing. It comes out, no question, and it always seems to touch the crowd (in a) certain way, so I love seeing that happen.” After all, several members of the band met at an open mic at Blackstar, a bookstore and coffee shop in New Orleans, where Ball was reciting her poetry. 

The Blind Pig concert itself was interspersed with powerful moments of clarity, as Ball boomed spoken word poetry out over the crowd. The band worked as a true unit, following each other and the path that their songs wanted to take when performed live. Johnson described his “psychic connection” with his brother, Jonathan Johnson, the bass player, and another founding band member, Norman Spence, on bass and synth keys. “I can look at him, or I could just say a certain word that may not make sense … everybody knows exactly what we’re looking for, you know, it’s really cool,” Johnson said. But a lot of the time, he went on to explain, it is when that connection fails once every so often that they learn from each other. “A lot of times we find new ideas for music that way, honestly,” Johnson confided.

But in that small, crowded room, these ties were immediately obvious, never failing once. The way this band works live is by feeding off of each other’s energy and that of the crowd. They never play a song the same way twice. You know all their songs by heart, have everything off of their albums memorized? Great. Throw that all out of the window, because it’s going to sound completely different live. Ball’s confidence on stage was the kind that extends to the whole room. She held the hands of audience members, whooped, called and thrilled with humor and playful affection, allowing her listeners to hold her same attitude, even if just for two hours. 

The other band members threw their whole bodies into their performance (often literally). Albert Allenback, on flute and alto saxophone, drew eyes to him with his gaspingly passionate solos and cheerfully exaggerated energy. Johnson himself was clearly the anchor to which all strings were tied, playing with a big grin on his face but watchful eyes. And when asked the difference between playing a show and just jamming on their own, he answered truthfully, “They would say that they have the energy of the crowd. I’ll be honest — for me it feels the same. A lot of times it feels just like I’m with them, and people are watching now.”

This humbleness translates through to the band’s mentality. “Before every show we at least get a prayer in, and we’re thankful, you know what I’m saying, we have a lot to be thankful for,” Johnson made sure to tell me. And it was so easy to tell how grateful he was, just in his answers to other, unrelated questions. What makes the band unique to him is “being able to communicate with everybody, it’s the love I have for each and every one of them honestly … it feels like one of those bands that never break up and you’re like, yeah, they all have their 65th Anniversary World Tour.”

After about 10 years together as a band, however, they still haven’t found a way to define their sound. There’s something funk, some soul, some rap, some spoken word. Some have tried to define it, using regional terms like gumbo, but the band has something else in mind. “To us, it’s almost like magic … it touches everybody, and it touches everybody differently,” Johnson said. His description of what it is like to play aligns perfectly with such a fantastical genre description, telling The Daily, “It’s almost like (the music is) part of us, but it’s not like I feel like one with it … it’s us, like the music is us and we are the music. We are the poetry and the poetry is within us. And you know, it’s like an energy, almost.”

This grateful energy ballooned throughout The Blind Pig that night, emphasized in the band’s finale, in which Ball riffed over the band for 15 minutes, repeating the sentence “I am strong.” With her arms held high, eyes open wide, the whole band gazing into the crowd and observing and learning from their looks back, it was an image of triumph.

Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at fiakamin@umich.edu.