Arriona “Tank” Ball
After a lavish musical introduction by her backing band, Tarriona “Tank” Ball – lead singer of Tank and the Bangas – playfully danced onto the stage to perform her song “Spaceships” to a rocking crowd.
Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the fans were mildly heaving, swaying, rolling, pitching and/or “yawing,” since they were perched on the deck of a giant cruise ship.
The date was Jan. 9, 2020. The setting was a performance on an ocean liner hosting the 18th edition of Jam Cruise, a floating musical festival that features fleet-fingered talent from all over the world – often with plenty of New Orleanians represented.
Her hair blowing in the sea breeze and her colorful sleeves flying like flags, Ball looked radiant and ready to embark on a year full of dynamic live performances around the world.
But, a few weeks later, the global COVID-19 pandemic changed the itinerary for her and virtually all of her peers.
For the past 12 months, because of safety restrictions, musicians haven’t been doing much crowd surfing. Instead, they’ve essentially been trapped on a desert island as they wait for conditions to improve and live music to be possible again.
The wave of pandemic-related concert cancellations affected thousands of New Orleans artists, but for high-profile performers like Ball, bounce rapper Big Freedia and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews – all prominent ambassadors of New Orleans music – it required a huge course correction.
“It was hugely disruptive,” said Freedia, who contracted and recovered from coronavirus last year after a press trip to New York City. “That’s my income. Also, I love being on the road and seeing my fans during the year. It was a huge adjustment for me to be home all the time.”
For these New Orleans road warriors, the year away from stages began as a time to rest.
“I wasn’t mad to be off the road because we’ve been touring for years,” said Ball, whose last concert before the shutdown was a show in Madison, Wisconsin with the Revivalists, the New Orleans-based roots rock band. She had followed up the Jam Cruise with a trip to the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles and then a series of shows in Japan. It was a hectic schedule, to say the least.
“We would come home for two days and then we’d be back out on the road again,” she said. “So, it was a lot, and the break was much needed.”
Andrews, who has been touring the world extensively for nearly two decades, also initially enjoyed the down time. The former child prodigy said he performs somewhere between 150 to 200 shows in a normal year.
“I’ve been on the road nonstop since I was about 18 years old up until they shut us down,” he said. “I spent my whole adult life building my career on tour. And this is the longest that I’ve been in the city since I was in high school.”
Andrews began 2020 with a performance at the College Football Playoff National Championship in New Orleans. He then performed in Havana, Cuba (on a bill that also included Tank and the Bangas) and at the Grammy Awards.
Later in the year, he was scheduled to co-headline a tour with the Roots, the hip hop group that’s also the house band for “The Tonight Show” – but instead he’s been home living with his mom, playing piano with his one-year-old nephew and trying to keep his chops up.
Despite the unexpected turn of events, Andrews said the chance to connect with his family has definitely been one of the silver linings of the whole experience.
“We haven’t been able to have that strong, everyday relationship besides talking on the phone or FaceTime when I’m on tour,” he said. “So, to actually be able to be in town and hang out with my family is beautiful. Before, I’d come in and spend Christmas Day at home and then we’d be out until after New Year’s. So, to be able to wake up the day after Christmas is something that hasn’t really happened for me in a very long time. I want to soak it all in right now and hopefully it will be an inspiration to continue to work hard and go out and put this music in the world.”
Andrews said the time he’s spent with his young nephew, in particular, has been a highlight.
“He just turned one and I get to play piano for him and hang out,” he said. “My mom bought him a little small piano and he has fat cheeks, so she calls him ‘Fats’ like Fats Domino. And if I was on the road, I wouldn’t have that relationship. So, I’m very blessed.”
After recharging their creative batteries, Ball and her band kept busy during the pandemic by creating new music and videos.
Working in various home studios, they recorded and released the EP “Friend Goals,” featuring contributions from Grammy-winner PJ Morton, Nigerian-American rapper Chika and an eclectic list of collaborators. A highlight is the track “Self Care,” which puts a silly spin on pandemic-induced social isolation.
The recording process was complicated because everyone in the group had to work on their own or in small groups and then use technology to bring it all together.
“We collaborated with all these people on all these zoom sessions and mixed the tracks remotely,” said Ball. “It was peaceful because we built home studios and we had some fun. In a way, you just feel more free. You can take a break and not feel so horrible like you’re wasting precious time and dollars.”
Andrews, meanwhile, has one completely finished album ready to release and enough new material to create at least one more. It all depends on when the label wants to release it – which, of course, depends on when he can play live shows to support it.
Although Andrews owns Buckjump Studio in the Lower Garden District, recording during the pandemic required extra planning.
“We have too many people to do it at the same time in the studio,” he said. “It wouldn’t be safe. We had to break them up in sections: rhythm section, horns and singers. I want to be able to get back and do something in our full capacity as a group, but the most important thing is everyone is healthy.”
Big Freedia, meanwhile, had planned to spend a portion of 2020 on a major North American tour with pop star Kesha but instead came back to New Orleans to get creative. A new single, “Platinum,” just hit the streets and an entire EP will be released in May. She also starred in a glitzy promo video for Facebook that also featured, of all the people, the International Kazoo Players Association.
Notably, Freedia also used this time to pivot toward a new creative endeavor: hosting a regular cooking show for a live audience on an outdoor set in City Park. The show is streamed to viewers worldwide.
“With the pandemic, my tour with Kesha was postponed and all my other shows for the year, so cooking was a natural pivot,” she said. “I have been cooking my whole life, so for me, inviting people into my home (virtually) to cook with me was a fun distraction that we all needed.”
The pandemic may have put a stop to most live music performances in New Orleans – and around the world – but it also opened the door for some innovative new variations on the theme.
A case in point is Piano on a Truck, the brainchild of a New Orleans-based piano collector, restorer and tuner named Jacques Ferland who bolted a 1948 Knabe piano to the bed of his 1997 Ford F150 pickup truck in March 2020 and partnered with New Orleans’ best piano players to provide COVID-safe outdoor entertainment.
Pianists who have performed on the back of his truck include Rickie Monie, Oscar Rossignoli, Joshua Paxton, Joe Krown, David Torkanowsky and Alex Pianovich.
Ferland estimates he’s produced 150 shows at locations ranging from the sidewalk in front of Maple Leaf Bar to quiet French Quarter Streets to the Touro Hospital entrance. He’s averaging four or five events a week and believes it’s going to become a permanent fixture.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I get to go to all the best parties and I hear a lot of great piano music. And it’s a new business that didn’t really exist before. At least not that I was aware of. So it’s keeping me in flight and I get to meet a whole bunch of people I never would have met otherwise.”
Ferland thinks part of the appeal is that the piano is a familiar and comforting sound – especially in New Orleans – but hearing it played outside is unusual.
“You might hear it coming out of a window or something as you’re walking by a house,” he said. “But to actually hear it right on the street is not that common. Playing in the French Quarter is really cool because the streets are so small that it makes it like a little echo chamber.”
Of course, the only reason people are hearing outdoor piano at all is because Ferland was in the right place at the right time – if anything about COVID-19 can be described as the “right time.”
“Very few people could do what I do,” he said. “And having a grand piano in the back of a truck is not an easy thing to pull off. The fact that I restore pianos and I tune pianos on a regular basis makes it easier for me, but I also have a right pickup truck with an eight foot bed. And I just have the exact right setup for it.”
Ferland also has a house in the Lower Ninth Ward that he uses to store the roughly 30 pianos he currently owns. He’s able to back his truck up to the front porch, move the railing out of the way and roll the piano inside for safekeeping.
Not that there’s much he can do to protect his restored instrument from the city’s tropical climate and infamously bad roads.
“The humidity here obviously wreaks havoc,” said Ferland. “Every time I hit a bump, it’s going to throw at least one of the strings off. So I’ll spend up to half an hour tweaking the piano before a show so that it sounds just right. And even then, sometimes it goes out of tune very quickly while the player is playing.
“So, it’s a rare thing. And, you know, if I didn’t tune the pianos myself, it would not be a very good experience for anybody.”
‘Get This Thing Under Control’
Freedia, Andrews and Ball understand the importance of getting the pandemic under control – and, in the meantime, helping the music community through this tough spell. All are lending their celebrity to causes.
“I just did something with Zatarain’s promoting porch parties, where you get to eat food and have fun from your porch,” said Ball, citing one example. “I believe that New Orleans  had such a spike in COVID because right after Mardi Gras, everybody came here from everywhere. And we love to kiss, we love to hug, we love to entertain. And two weeks later, the city started getting crazy.”
Andrews, meanwhile, filmed a PSA for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which is raising money for a relief fund to support Louisiana musicians who have lost income amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Music brings so much joy to people and brings unity,” he said. “And some of these musicians used to work every night. Some of them weren’t able to go on tour as much as I have. And I wanted to let them know that we all care and we’re all in this together.”
Looking ahead, Andrews said he’s most worried that there’s no true timeline of when life will actually get back to what it once was, if it ever does.
“I don’t think there’s going to be one day where the government or whoever it is making those decisions will tell us, ‘Oh, OK, we’re open,’ and then we can go do some shows,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be a gradual opening. We have to do our part and make sure that we don’t go out on Bourbon Street or wherever and be reckless. But I think if everybody plays their part, and we get this thing under control, I’m hopeful that everything else will fall in line.”
Ball, who remained upbeat throughout 2020, said she’s recently started to worry more about the future.
“There were certain things that happened in 2020 for me that were just quite freakin spectacular,” she said. “It’s 2021 that’s got me like, ‘Wait, what’s about to happen?’ What is the future of the musicians? How are we going to survive? Does anybody care about us? Before, I was taking a break. Now, I’m questioning.”
She’ll undoubtedly feel more optimistic once she gets back on stage.
“I just want everybody to know the songs and dance and have a great time, people getting fed on both ends: the crowd and yourself,” said Ball. “I know artists are itching to get back on stage and interact with people because we really become so much more human when we get on stage. It’s such an experience, you know? And it would be a shame if people lived the rest of their life without that feeling.”
“That part is really weird for me, because I’ve been playing in front of people since I was about four starting in the second line parades,” he said. “It’s always been a connection between what we put out there and seeing people react in all those street parades up until what my career has become. At the beginning, I was able to write and do a bunch of music, but now that it’s a year later, it’s hard because there’s no inspiration. I can’t perform in front of people so it’s just not that spiritual connection right now.”
Notably, he even yearns for the less glamorous facets of road life.
“I miss waking up at five in the morning,” he said. “Catching a flight, jumping on my bus, seeing some of my band members that don’t live here. And I really miss the crowd and that energy. When I’m on tour I’m representing New Orleans and I just miss being able to introduce people to that music and bring that love.”
Freedia, perhaps, sums up her feelings about getting back onstage the most succinctly: “Oh my god, it’s going to be explosive,” she said. “Get ready!”