The Dakota is sold out. I’m wearing a t-shirt and jeans. The door guy understandably sticks me at the very back corner of the bar. It’s around 7:30 on a Friday night and everyone is finishing their dinner, wiping their mouths politely with corners of black napkins, making mellow chit-chat. But there is a tension bubbling, a nervous energy that you can hear in the clang of stainless steel cutlery against porcelain dinnerware and the slowly-rising velocity of voices. When will they go on?
It’s Ranky Tanky tonight, a South Carolinian quintet who have never been to Minneapolis, who in fact have only been a band for two years, and they’ve packed The Dakota to the brim. This is a feat, and the story goes back to last December when the band was featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with host Terry Gross. The band exploded overnight. They shot to the top of the jazz charts, added a slew of new dates to what was, at the time, a quite limited tour. They broke out. And here they are, let’s welcome them.
We have a trumpet player, electric guitar, upright bass, drum kit, and a vocalist. Trumpet and guitar sing too, and the three immediately bust out some close and tight three-part harmony. Quianna Parler, our vocalist, floats atop the mixture like cream and the whole thing just soars. This first song is slow and soulful, I’m checked in.
Our trumpeter, Charlton Singleton, is not only a powerful player but also skilled orator. Every song has a story, a history, a significance. I am learning a lot. Many of these songs are interpretations of old songs of the Gullah: a population of African Americans in South Carolina and Georgia who descend from West and Central Africa, their ancestors enslaved and brought to the American south. Most of the band has Gullah roots. The music is slow, soulful, quick, mournful, hopeful, elated, danceable.
Clay Ross – the band’s founder and only white member – describes, during one of the evening’s many anecdotal interludes, Ranky Tanky as a “collision of cultures.” This is very present in the music. Ross’ guitar playing is very country blues at times and very American jazz at others. Some songs are long and feature chops-laden solos from all members, others are short, contained and vocally-driven. The band plays a few originals, the song “Freedom” standing out as a high point of the evening and a showcase for Quianna’s virtuosity.
After a brief break and a stop at the merch table, everyone is back for set two. The band really picks things up here (it’s a really well designed set for a dinner show like this: set one comprised mostly of downtempo ballads while everyone eats, set two more upbeat while everyone drinks) and eventually, finally, we have a smattering of the audience up from their chairs and moving. “O Death” brings the evening’s first standing ovation. Parler soars, the band lays back and gives her room, the temperature seems to drop a bit, everyone is shivering enthralled shivers.
“O, Death, won’t you spare me over for another year?”
I’ve been ordering Manhattans all evening (it feels correct) but I don’t think I can blame the tears brimming up now on expensive bourbon. This music has power. I am transported. To where, I’m not sure, but it’s far away from here and it’s that sort of twilight where your whole world is fuchsia and gold and you’re contemplating the meaning of the word “fleeting” and feeling pretty silly about how much you tend to worry about things like numbers and plans and conversations and the sun drops suddenly like a stone and it’s black as pitch and sticky too and you’re hands are out in front of you grasping for support and the song ends and I’m back, never moved, but everyone is on their feet and clapping, so I stand.
Ranky Tanky closes with a rousing “Greet Sally.” Ross gives us some words to sing with him and some moves to go with the words. Everyone is loose and light. What a night, what a band. Their eponymous debut album is on Spotify, if that’s your thing, and they’ve got a lot of videos on Youtube (like the one above, go click that link if you didn’t before.) If you listen to the album I promise you you’ll have a good idea about something you’ve been stuck on or at the very least smile a lot.