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(Alligator 4879 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/25/2001)
Playing the blues is normally thought of as a male occupation, but the revival of popularity the style has enjoyed for the last decade or so has seen the increased prominence of women artists ranging from veterans like Koko Taylor to teenagers like Shannon Curfman. And perhaps more than most other genres, the blues has a significant number of artists who have been making outstanding music for decades primarily to regional audiences without attracting much national attention. Though again with the currently higher visibility for the music, more of those regional artists are seeing their music distributed more widely.
This week we have the latest album from a veteran female performer who has been playing her brand of blues and boogie-woogie since 1970, mainly along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Austin, Texas, but whose is deservedly enjoying increased visibility on the scene. She is Marcia Ball, and her new CD, her ninth, is called Presumed Innocent.
A native of a small town in Texas, the 51-year-old pianist and vocalist grew up in neighboring Louisiana in a family all of whose female members were pianists. Ms. Ball began piano lessons at age 5, playing a variety of styles, but was firmly smitten by the blues when at age 14 she heard Irma Thomas. By the late 1960s, as Ms Ball was attending Louisiana State University, she was also performing with a band called Gum which played some Irma Thomas covers. After graduation in 1970, Ms. Ball set off for San Francisco, but broke down in Austin, and ended up staying there. She formed a group called Freda and the Firebirds, which performed in Austin for about four years, and after the group dissolved in 1974, she launched a solo career, releasing her first album called Circuit Queen in 1978 for Capitol Records, an LP described as bluesy country-soul.
During the 1980s and 1990s, she released a series of well-received albums that gradually won her wider national audiences. She also recorded a pair of trio sessions with other women blues artists including one with Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas. The latter was nominated for Grammy and WC Handy awards.
For her new Austin-recorded album, Ms. Ball was joined by members of her road band along with a number of prominent musicians including Delbert McClinton, saxophonist Mark Kazanoff, trumpet man Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, and New Orleans guitar sensation Sonny Landreth. The album was co-produced with Ms. Ball by Doyle Bramhall, who also plays some drums on the CD. The material includes both new original songs and some obscure old R&B covers into which she breathes new life. The result is a fine album by a performer whose work has been consistently high in quality over the years. She combines upbeat boogie-woogie tunes, which she propels at her piano, along with New Orleans-influenced music that exudes a good time, and a couple of slower soul ballads. It's all first-rate with hardly a dull moment, served up by an excellent gathering of musicians, with Ms. Ball first among them.
Leading off is one of the Ball originals, co-written with Austin songwriter Stephen Bruton, Scene of the Crime, which provides the inspiration for the album's title. It is a rare occurrence in the blues: instead of lamenting how one was wronged by others, this is a song whose lyrics essentially are a mea culpa. The band really cooks. <<>>
Marcia Ball has always close musical ties to New Orleans, and on this CD she does a song by the great Crescent City songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, You Make It Hard. This is the track that features a duet with Delbert McClinton, and it turns out to be one of the album's strongest performances. <<>>
Another prominent influence on this CD is Memphis-style soul. A prime example is Count the Days, nicely performed, complete with trumpet man Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns in the brass section. <<>>
Ms. Ball is a fine boogie-woogie pianist, and about the only significant drawback to this album is that her playing is not much emphasized on the CD. But she does get a chance to do her thing at the piano on the original composition Louella a fun song about a notorious gossip. <<>>
Ms. Ball does a couple of slower soul ballads on the CD, but they prove not to be her strongest point. Still, Let the Tears Roll Down is nicely performed in the classic style. <<>>
On the other hand, the original jazzy ballad She's So Innocent shows Ms. Ball in fine form. <<>>
Memphis Horns man Wayne Jackson co-wrote one of the album's tracks, Fly on the Wall. It's another of the stronger performances , and features some slide guitar work from Sonny Landreth. <<>>
Co-producer Bramhall wrote another song that reflects Ms. Ball's Louisiana connection, Thibodaux, Louisiana, which with its accordion has some good-time Zydeco influence, which is further enhanced by the presence of guitarist C.C. Adcock. <<>>
The album ends with the appropriately-named You Make Me Happy, another Ball original combining her Memphis and New Orleans facets along with a great groove and some tasty Crescent City style piano. <<>>
Marcia Ball has been working as a professional musician for over thirty years now, making great blues, boogie-woogie and soul, steeped in her Gulf Coast upbringing. Her new album is one of the best of her many excellent recordings, combining a diverse collection of songs with great musicianship and production that emphasizes the driving, upbeat party-music nature of Ms. Ball's performances. She is one of the most consistent blues performers on the scene, and her combination of good-time grooves, charismatic vocals and impressive piano work makes her new CD a most worthy addition to any blues collection.
From a sonic standpoint, the CD gets about a B+. The music is generally well recorded and mixed, but the overall sound is loud and compressed, detracting from the dynamics of the performances.
While Marcia Ball has been gaining in popularity over the years with her busy tour schedule and her occasional national appearances, her new album Presumed Innocent could well win this dynamic performer many more fans.
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