Marcia Ball – Live! Down the Road (2005)

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NICK DERISO: As good as her studio recordings are, they have a certain airless perfection that doesn’t quite fit the rollicking piano genius of Marcia Ball.

Hers is a bubbling soulfulness, loose limbed and informal – and it’s dripping over the sides of “Live! Down the Road,” Ball’s first-ever full-length live album. Ball quickly settles into a familiar Gulf Coast groove, offering crowd favorites like “Crawfishin'” and the always deeply moving “Louisiana 1927.” Then she stirs in Louisiana R&B and Texas blues, adding dashes of cutting wit and pounding piano.

But this disc, recorded at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 2004, isn’t simply roadhouse redux. Newer favorites like “Louella” find their own steady-rocking voice on stage.

“Count the Days,” from 2001, is perhaps the best example of that wit: “Well, if you don’t believe I’m leaving,” Ball sings, “you can count the days I’m gone. (With background vocals of ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … .’)”

It’s a full-throated retrospective, precisely the kind of toe-tapping collection of greatest hits (or mostly) that a lively artist like Ball so richly deserves.

Born in Orange, Texas, in 1949, Ball grew up around piano-playing family members in Vinton, right across the state line. Her first experience with blues was a performance she saw as a teen by Irma Thomas – an artist that Ball would eventually record with on the great late 1997 album “Sing It!,” along with Tracy Nelson; and then on the tremendous Katrina-benefit album “Sing Me Home.”

By 1966, Ball was playing in college bands while attending LSU. After a stint in Austin, where she was a member of the influential Firedogs, Ball launched her solo career – signing with Capitol, which released the countryish “Circuit Queen” in 1978.

Her next six recordings were made for Rounder, along with a collaboration with Angela Strehli on the legendary Austin imprint Antone’s.

“Live!,” however, solidifies her late-career resurgence on Alligator Records, the label she joined in 2001. Her first two releases for Alligator, “Presumed Innocent” (original home to “Count the Days”) and “So Many Rivers,” both won Handy Awards for blues album of the year.

Still, to my ear, her studio recordings never have the piano far enough forward in the mix, something remedied throughout this release. Her formidable chops are finally brought level with the honky horns and stinging guitars – and to great effect.

“Live!” synthesizes not just the border-town musical joys of Ball’s youth, but also the singing and playing and writing brilliance once only truly experienced from local bandstands.

And you don’t have to go down the road any more to hear it.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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