With a vocal range that drifts from a Minnie Ripperton whisper, to a soaring testimonial, to a full-throated bellow, Tank Ball is redefining what it means to be a soul singer. With a rhyme style that shifts from a slam poet’s stream of consciousness torrent, to a sharp observational flow, to the kind of expressive storytelling employed in musical theater, she’s also pushing the boundaries of rap. And with an adventurous backing band that sounds like Parliament crashed a spoken word set at a jazz cafe, at several points during Tank and the Bangas’ debut "Austin City Limits" taping on Monday, it felt like the ensemble might be changing the formulation of what constitutes a song.
Untethered to norms, the nine-piece crew from New Orleans unwound sprawling jams as they flowed freely through a 12-song set primarily drawn from the group’s 2019 album "Green Balloon." Songs tumbled into other songs often delineated by mood shifts rather than breaks.
Character dripped from Ball’s voice as she shifted from a lilting sing-song hook to deep and forceful rapping while the band indulged in jazzy astral projection in set opener, "Spaceships." They segued into a furious rendition of the vivid story rap "Quick," the song that propelled the group into the national limelight when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017. The band was by turns, spooky and dramatic. They created rich aural soundscapes then deconstructed them into a cacophony of abstract noise.
The group had an easy chemistry, instrumental solos were abundant and the entire performance felt like a joyous jam. On the soulful meditation, "Hot Air Balloon," Ball explored the various colors in her voice as the band provided a dreamy and wistful sound bed. She was a beat poet gone awry over a walking jazz groove on "Do Something," a song that started with an ache of insecurity and ended as a bold statement of self. It was one of many tracks that took the listener on a journey, beginning in one place and moving through various transformations.
The same can be said for the show as a whole. It was a whimsical adventure, loaded with poignant moments and triumphant turns. The set ended with everyone in the crowd on their feet as the band cranked out an exuberant, shout-along version of "The Brady’s."
As the group gathered center stage and held hands while they bowed, an ebullient warmth spread through the room. The crowd cheered wildly and as "Austin City Limits" closed their 45th season, everyone left with a smile on their face.