The neon-bright world of Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball
It’s not every year that you get to celebrate your birthday twice, but for Tarriona “Tank” Ball, the powerhouse poet-diva at the front of vibrant New Orleans funk-busters Tank and the Bangas, that was the way to do it in her first year of national fame. Over the phone from somewhere between Madison and Nashville, she described to the Globe how her friends made magic happen in Chicago on the day before her birthday earlier this month. “I wanted a boat, they found me a boat,” she says. “I wanted ice cream cake, they found me ice cream cake.” The next day, on her actual 29th birthday, the band performed in Chicago at the North Coast Music Festival, where a crowd sang for her.
Since the middle of this year, Tank and the Bangas have been hopping around the country, spreading their infectious, neon-bright blend of funk, jazz, dance, and Ball’s spoken-word poems wherever they go. On Thursday, they’ll be swinging through The Sinclair in Cambridge, playing to a sold-out crowd.
Though Ball isn’t new to performing — she won a national title as a member of Slam New Orleans in 2012, and released the album “Think Tank” with Tank and the Bangas in 2013 — this is her first year of such intense touring. The world at large first saw her on YouTube, perched atop a school desk with her hair in two huge buns, rapping and belting out a storm in the acoustic take on the band’s song “Quick” that won the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk Contest in a unanimous decision, catapulting the band into the public eye and giving them a national audience.
“Tank is like a force of nature,” said Phish singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio, one of 10 judges, in a post-contest interview with NPR. “Just full of joy. And her band is just killing it.”
Ball’s lyrics, which have as many layers of meaning as her outfits do of color, are anchored in the slam poetry tradition. They flow, twist, and bend, syllables and rhymes snapping and locking with natural flair. Songs like “WalMart” and “Boxes and Squares” tell hilarious yet heartbreaking stories of love and loss, and the narrator of “The Brady’s” wants nothing more than a life of kitschy, pastel-toned comfort.
“Quick” is a joyride through playground rhymes and call-and-response vocals between Ball and bandmate Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph. Because the Tiny Desk video’s cheery delivery and schoolroom setting so sharply differed from the lyrical content, when the much darker video for the studio version dropped, some confusion and even hostility was sprinkled among the accolades. In the seven-minute video, she sings from a stoop with a bouncing, raucous group of women, whipping her massive ponytail back and forth, narrating the action as a street-smart party girl takes violent revenge on a police officer who had drugged and assaulted her while off duty.
“I’m a storyteller, and I like to tell stories,” Ball says in response. “There’s more than one type of woman in the world, and everybody has a story to be heard, whether you understood it or not.” She laughs. “The video makes it extremely clear!”
Ball’s lyrics come from the heart, and her clothing comes from thrift stores, markets, and anywhere she finds something that grabs her attention. Her unique style began to develop during the time she spent away from home after fleeing Hurricane Katrina, she says. Her family landed in an apartment complex in Indiana, where there was a room stocked with donated clothes for the evacuees.
“Me and my sisters used to go in there every night and find something to wear for school,” she says. “It just let me know that you can have things you like affordably, and feel comfortable and cool.”
If she could tell her younger self one thing, she says, it would be to not take herself so seriously. “You don’t want to stand in the way of your brilliance, or your success, or friendships, or anything,” she says. “So I won’t be so emotional about simple things that have no business bothering me so I can see what’s really in front of me.”
TANK AND THE BANGAS
With Sweet Crude. At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Thursday at 8 p.m. www.sinclaircambridge.com