Amid an army of performing musicians at the BottleRock Music Festival last weekend, three musically distinct artists exemplified rock’s tradition of merging musical excellence with an abundance of flashy extroversion. Two relative newcomers, Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and the Bangas and Luke Spiller of The Struts, and one minted rock star, Brandon Flowers of The Killers, wowed their respective audiences.
Tank and the Bangas
Each year, a week or two before the festival, I ask BottleRock CEO Dave Graham to pick the relatively unknown band that is most likely to blow people away. This year, it was Tank and the Bangas, and they did. “The band touches just about every genre of music,” Graham said. “It’s a mix between jazz, rock, hip hop, funk. And then throw in some kind of poetry reads in the middle of some of their songs.”
At the center of this New Orleans crew is lead singer and high priestess Tarriona “Tank” Ball, a mugging diva with a huge playful and elastic voice and an irresistible theatrical presence. Ball and three of her bandmates – drummer Josh Johnson, bassman Norman Spence and sax/flute player Albert Allenback—sat down for a backstage conversation on BottleRock Friday.
Spence traced the band’s origins. “I met Tank and Josh at an open mike one night. We just kind of gravitated toward each other, for whatever reason, and kept it going. Me and Josh became a private house band, then I met Merell (keyboard player Merell Burkett). I met Albert at church. He came in with a sax and told me he played the flute, then it just took the snowball effect. We kept rolling in the right people.”
Ball sees the band’s gumbo of genres as organic, a natural outcome of the members’ origins. “You get all these people who grew up in different parts of New Orleans, and of the world,” she said. “They come with their influences, their backgrounds, their childhoods, and we just bring them together and see what we can find. It’s like putting puzzle pieces together, and it makes a pretty interesting picture, one that we’re not even done drawing yet, and it’s just so much fun.”
The expressive (understatement) lead singer’s vocal influences are many and varied. “The list goes on and on and on,” she said, “from Anita Baker to Aretha Franklin to Nina Simone, a huge influence, Sunni Patterson, a female poet at home, and Norah Jones and Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Janelle Monae. So many women, women who’ve have been doing their thing for a while. Even gospel singers like Lashun Pace and Yolanda Adams. It’s been really good ears in my house.”
The band got its big break by winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest. “It’s the reason that we’re here with you today,” Ball said. “We’ve always been doing this. We’ve been traveling in the Southeast almost all our lives, especially going through the poetry circuits and the chitlin’ circuit, as they like to call it. But the NPR Tiny Desk Contest gave us the platform that we needed so everybody could see how beautifully we’ve been shining.”
“When the opportunity presented itself, we were ready for it and excited, and Bob (NPR’s Bob Boilen, creator of the Tiny Desk Contest) told us that it would change our lives, and he was so right.”
Two years ago, Graham’s “band to watch” was The Struts, fronted by über-extrovert Luke Spiller. A throwback to glam-rockers and big-voiced, larger-than-life front men like Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury, Spiller stopped in to the festival’s media center last Friday to talk about the band’s continuing relationship with BottleRock and Napa Valley.
“The first time we played here, two years ago, was absolutely amazing,” Spiller said. “I couldn’t believe how well we were received. Today’s (main stage performance), it was on par, if not better.
“At the time (BottleRock 2016), we were on the radio and I think the debut album had been released. We were very much on the up, and everything was out there. When we played here, it was like all these great things were coming together. As they say, the stars were aligning and it was fantastic.”
“Every time we find ourselves in the Napa area, there is always something to do, always someone to like, and say ‘hi’ to. It is a really great place for us. Every time we’re here, it’s always a guaranteed great night, without exception.”
The Struts are indeed “on the up,” routinely supporting Foo Fighters in front of huge crowds on tour, and about to release their second album. “It’s all done,” he said. “We’re in the stage now of getting the mixes back and forth, and working them all out. We should have a new single out very, very soon. By the time it comes out, we’ll be back on the road with the Foos.”
“The album should be released, I imagine, about two months after that single, maybe sooner. It’ll be followed by all the usual stuff, the videos and everything. We wrote it in the space of three years on and off the road. We’ve created, I think, a really, really strong album. It’s much better than the first one.”
In my 2016 interview with Spiller, he said that his ambition for the Struts was for them to become “the biggest rock band in the world.” His ambition is unchanged, though he is circumspect about the journey. “I think I’ve learned a lot even from the last time we spoke,” he said. “For any British band like us coming over to the U.S., you find out within the first year of touring, the sheer size of it.
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“For example, there’s so many areas in terms of radio here. It’s a huge playing field with lots of different charts, different stations playing specific kinds of music. Yes, it’s gonna take a lot of hard work, but it’s also inspired me. I’m looking at the challenge, looking at the band, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’
“The biggest initial goal is to get this band onto the Top 40, and get guitar music among the Top 10. Rock chart and stuff like that is great. Alternative, modern rock, and what not, I want to be competing with those too. I want to be competing with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Eminem. You know, the big guns.”
“There’s plenty of bands out there that look like the biggest rock and roll band in the world, but they don’t sound like it,” Spiller said. “I think that once people start hearing the next couple of singles, they’ll hear the ambition in the music. There is evolution in the sound of the band. We wanna conquer America with it, and after that conquer the world.”
Brandon Flowers hits the JaM Cellars stage for The Killers Saturday headliner set wearing, of all things, a lawyerly three-piece gray pinstripe suit. It would not be his last fashion statement of the evening. “Mr Brightside,” the band’s biggest hit and it’s traditional closer, is the opener, perhaps signaling that this concert will be something different.
The personnel are certainly different, with guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, both founding members, replaced, respectively, by Ted Sablay and Jake Blanton. The Killers powerhouse drummer, Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. is still on board.
The band is locked in from the start, apparently unaffected by the fact that they headlined the Boston Calling Music Festival the evening before, playing until 11 p.m and flying all night to California. At the four-song mark, Flowers makes a crowd-pleasing announcement, “The Warriors are still in it (they’d just won Game 6 against the Rockets) and The Killers are on fire.”
As always, as the headline set progresses, the sky darkens and the light show begins. There are some eye-popping laser accompaniments to “Shot at the Night,” “For Reasons Unknown,” “Human” and “The Man.”
Flowers takes a break from the original songs. “If you miss Tom Petty, make some noise,” he says, and kicks into a satisfying, solid cover of “American Girl” with a taste of “Free Fallin’’’ at the end.
His strong suits have always been his songwriting and his voice. And after some early apparent shyness, Flowers has for a long time been a full-on rock star with a radiant stage presence. His fans love him and his music and they show it in numbers Saturday night.
He possesses the “three p’s” of great singers – power, pitch and phrasing. He does this without in-ear monitors, which is unusual these days. Vannucci, Jr. is the muscular engine of the band, his drumming tilting the needle in live performance closer to rock than pop.
Sablay holds up his end on guitar, with Pete Townsend-like power chords on “Runaways” and shimmering like The Edge on “All These Things I’ve Done.” His extended solo on his left-handed black Les Paul on “Read My Mind” earns the noisy approval of the BottleRock crowd.
The flash in this show comes late, after the 16-song set and the break for the encore. Flowers re-enters in a gold sequined suit, complete with gold sequin boots, shades, and the complete absence of his otherwise ever-present smile. He strikes cocky, aggressive poses, while the black and white visuals behind – snakes and explosions – complete the picture. It is theater and it is creepy.
The song is “The Calling,” a song overtly about salvation, “…Lean into the light,” and difficult, for this fan at least, to reconcile with the imagery. It is certain, though, that we are witnessing art.
Finally, Flowers breaks the spell, tosses the shades, The Killer once again with the killer smile, and closes BottleRock Saturday with one more song.
The benediction, though, goes to The Struts’ Luke Spiller. In his afternoon interview he said, “The stage show, the clothing, everything else is second. What we always try to do is create the best music possible.”