John Fogerty wrote "Born on the Bayou," but the title hits a lot closer to home for Marcia Ball. The blues pianist grew up in the Gulf Coast region that bleeds between Louisiana and Texas; the same fertile crescent that spawned Janis Joplin, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and George Jones. Ball has been blowing away roadhouses and honky-tonks along the so-called crawdad circuit for more than two decades, and the 51-year-old shows no sign of kicking back or sucking her last crawfish head just yet.
Ball makes her mark with hardy, boogie-woogie piano chops flying recklessly à la Jerry Lee Lewis and a voice that soulfully adds subtle inflections as she cruises through her upper register. Ball adds a complementing contrast to her current touring package that finds her alongside Fogerty and Aaron Neville, a natural combination she feels caters to people who like "strong, rootsy music, but don't want to be left in one bag."
Likewise Ball's repertoire draws from many bags. Primarily slated as a contemporary blues artist, she's run the gamut from folk to rock and incorporates healthy doses of R&B, zydeco, swamp-rock, and gospel into her current playbook. In 1998 the gospel-inspired vocal showcase she recorded with fellow blues divas Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson, Sing It!, was nominated for both Grammy and Handy awards in the best contemporary blues album category. She didn't win those awards, but the same year Ball hauled in a Handy for contemporary female artist of the year, and she is again nominated this year in the blues instrumentalist (keyboards) category. The charismatic six-foot brunette's piano phrasings are right on the mark -- not particularly complex, yet they hit home with a universal barrelhouse-romp appeal.
Ball writes solid songs with catchy hooks and lyrics often catering to her two favorite pastimes -- partying and falling in love. She tugs at heartstrings with a tender touch on the thoughtful ballads "Why Women Cry," and "For the Love of a Man," from her 1997 solo disc, Let Me Play With Your Poodle. However, for prime examples of Ball's freewheeling ebony/ivory prowess, listen to the title track from Poodle or the full-tilt boogie of "That's Enough of That Stuff," from 1986's Hot Tamale Baby, where her affinity for the licks of Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Leon Russell, and Fats Domino becomes evident.
Critics have long heralded Ball's songwriting abilities, although she concedes that composing's not her favorite thing to do. "Like the saying goes, "I don't like to write, I like to have written,'" she explains. "The writing process is not all that pleasant." But Ball can't stop its contagiousness. "After I got my first songs out there, I was like, "Hey, I like this. This is cool.'" Ball's songwriting progressively became a bigger part of her recordings. On her first few discs, she only wrote a few tunes, but by the third CD, the rollicking, New Orleansstyle Gatorhythms, seven out of ten songs were originals. Since then Ball's written about half the numbers she records. The rest of the songs are chosen from diverse artists such as Tampa Red, Elton John, Clifton Chenier, and Delbert McClinton. But there's no great scientific method for picking her covers, she claims. "It usually depends on what I need -- a hot, up-tempo, zydeco-sounding song -- or I just find the perfect lyrical hook or the right story to tell."
When she's not writing or working in the studio, Ball and her five-piece band (saxophonist Brad Andrew, bassist Don Bennett, guitarist Pat Boyack, and drummer Keith Robinson) usually play as many as 140 gigs a year throughout the U.S. and Europe. "My typical crowd is middle-aged," she admits, "but still cool. Then the whole young crowd is also there -- and I get a lot of testimonial from them. They come up to me after a show and say things like, "We never heard you before, but we really like that.' Or "I couldn't decide if I wanted to come hear you, lady, but I'm glad I did.'"
Music was instilled in Ball's blood early: She started playing the piano, which turned out to be the prime mover in her professional life, at age five. "It's almost as if music chose me, and then allowed me to continue," she says jocularly. "And of course you need to understand that once you're a ham, then you're always a ham. Once you've appreciated the seductiveness of an audience's response, then it's hard to break away from that. I've had that going on since I was about five."
But it wasn't until the late '70s that Ball's career started to bloom, after she landed in Austin, Texas, where she's still based. She floated among rock bands (including the psychedelic-tinged Gum and the straightforward Freda and the Firedogs), then took a special shine to the progressive country movement that was going on at the time. But then, she reveals, "around 1980, I decided to concentrate on being in a blues band and that I would hire only people who were that kind of musician. That's where I came from: blues and rhythm and blues. That's what I had started to infuse into my other bands, but I had a hard time cutting loose from all the other things I was doing."
Although Austin was big on country music at the time, there was a formidable group of blues players that Ball says made the environment more conducive to success. "The [Fabulous Thunderbirds] were hot, Stevie [Ray Vaughan] was hot, and we had Derek O'Brien and Danny Freeman -- just a lot of great guitarists and blues bands that were struggling while country got all the attention." Ball was swept into this blues renaissance and never looked back.
Shortly thereafter a deal with Rounder Records -- a powerhouse of American roots and blues music -- followed. In 18 years she released five full-length recordings under her own name and sporadically made discs with other artists (including Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli) for Rounder. Taking time between albums, Ball is careful not to release anything that's substandard, keeping each album refreshingly free of filler. Her association with Rounder recently ended amicably, and she has ended up with another roots/blues firm rife with legend and longevity, Alligator. "They put out fewer records," Ball says about the switch, "and it's all blues, so it's a more concentrated effort. Plus, it's nice to be somebody's new thing."
MARS Music Amphitheatre
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