For Tank and the Bangas, a seamless move from tiny desk to big stage

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At a sold-out U Street Music Hall, the New Orleans group was a powerhouse, led by their charismatic lead singer.

Tank and the Bangas had been creating acclaimed music for several years before they rose to national prominence, beating out 6,000 other artists to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest earlier this year. Video of their NPR “Tiny Desk” performance was shared widely across social media, as a growing audience became enamored and intrigued by the group’s flawless marriage of rap, spoken word and neo-soul. While the video does give a taste of their magnetic energy, it doesn’t quite capture the magic of actually being there in the room.

At Monday’s sold-out show at U Street Music Hall, the New Orleans-based group pushed the limits of genre and performance. Frontwoman Tank, with her huge, puffy ponytails, made transitions between riled-up raps, spirit-churning singing and a little bit of twerking seem effortless. Her equally talented co-vocalist Jelly was the perfect complement — their chemistry was as infectious as their harmonies and ad-libs. The two women were backed by a five-man band handling two sets of keys, drums, bass, saxophone and flute. Though there was little that called to the jazzy tradition of the Crescent City, the group’s musicality and commitment to entertaining would certainly make their home town proud.

Source material served only as inspiration for the group to reinterpret onstage. Songs that were recorded at four minutes sprawled to seven or eight, as Tank seemed to go wherever the energy took her. Her animated performance of “Quick” was cut with a spoken-word sermon: “Like a New Orleans warrior with a fistful of holy water, been dripping since I got here. . . . It was a life led by fear or a life led by faith,” she declared with all the conviction of a Southern baptist preacher, the fruits of her faith displayed brilliantly.

There was a theatrical aspect to the way Tank portrayed emotion. She sometimes rapped with a Disney-like cuteness — her voice becoming squeaky and cartoonish — while other times her delivery was rapid and fiery. The two modes sometimes appeared in the same song, within seconds of each other. She toggles between Broadway drama and speakeasy soul depending on the topic, but it’s the soul that creeps into your bones. She shines brightest on mellow songs such as “Oh Heart” and “Rollercoasters” where the sincerity of her voice and lyrics freeze listeners in the moment.

While it often feels as if artists must make trade-offs of their vision in the pursuit of stardom, Tank and her crew offered no compromises. She stood before the audience in all of her quirky, unapologetic glory and simply blew them away. Her authenticity was as powerful as it was refreshing, and on the whole, it was the kind of performance that sends you home to search through YouTube trying to find that one song performed in that same way to give you that same feeling. But watching online, that’s nearly an impossible feat.

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