An over-glossy sound makes this first-ever live album of Gator music and blues a bit distant, but the piano chops and down-home vocals shine through.
First things first: any album recorded live at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Northern California ought to be a hoppy (and therefore happy) good time. Just the thought of it cheers the cockles of m' heart -- the amber bottles wrapped in light green labels, the bitter-smoothness of pale ales in the air, and the rockin' Louisiana/Texas groove of Marcia Ball. Let's shake it.
Live! Down the Road is a party record with a conscience, a record meant to get you up out of your chair while also touring you around the American South to enjoy the complex web of roots music that has marinated in the bayous and cities, bars and juke joints. This is an album intent on giving you a bluesy education through the back door of fun. Marcia Ball, a 35-year veteran of the Austin, Texas house-rockin' scene -- a woman with her share of awards and a long line of albums on both Rounder and Alligator Records -- knows of what she sings. She may look a bit like your best friend's mom, but she can tie you in pretzel knot with her piano chops and her blues shouting if you so much as think you've already been where she came from.
The Marcia Ball story is this: She grew up near the Texas-Louisiana border in a family of piano players, eventually discovering Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, and the other classic New Orleans pianists. She moved to Austin in 1970 and began a solo career in '74. A guy I knew about 15 years ago lived in Austin for three years, and he couldn't shut up about her -- "A local legend who rocks the house Texas-style!" Her rep as a stellar live act with a crack band has been as solid as any -- a husky-voiced barrelhouse pianist combining blues savvy with Zydeco groove. It's a surprise, then, to realize that this is Ball's first live recording. Does it substantiate my friend's raves?
It's somewhat hard to say. This is certainly an album of fun, professional roots music -- a batch of Cajun fun and blues barbeque. Ball is everything you ask of her -- delivering convincing shouts where they're needed, seductive blues lines that slide in the gaps, a syncopated piano introduction on "Louella" that moves you in all the right places. Yet there is something oddly antiseptic about the whole production. It seems to be less in the notes the band plays than in the over-clean sound of the production. On "Louella", for instance, during the piano solo you can pick apart the sounds of the rhythm section -- clean guitar, B3 organ, bass, drums, as if they were the un-mustarded layers of a sandwich. As Ms. Ball alternates vocal choruses with solos, we hear it again and again: a wailing sax that seems somewhat studied, a B3 solo bolstered by a clean horn chart, then an almost Vegas-y key change into another turn for Ms. Ball's piano.
Now, I hate to suggest that sloppiness or questionable musicianship is a plus for roots music -- not true. But it does seem important for such bands to present themselves as cohesive units -- truly a band of musicians making a single sound rather than a collection of snappy virtuosos. On Live! Down the Road, Ball's band sounds a bit too much like the Tonight Show Band getting behind B.B. King -- highly competent only too much so. Perhaps the sound engineers at the Sierra Nevada "Big Room" should have imbibed more fully before setting up the mics?
Importantly, this too-clean band sound seems at odds with the natural qualities of Ms. Ball's voice. She is, essentially, a blues singer in the Irma Thomas mode, with a somewhat mushy quality to her sound: slushy consonants and a whiff of breath in every vowel, no matter how urgent the lyric. You can hear her Texas drawl in the way she phrases, adding that edge of laziness that brings her attack attractively behind the beat even on up-tempo songs.
Take "Just Kiss Me", a Duck Robillard 12-bar that is as fine as anything on the album. Ms. Ball delivers a killer vocal: "Just kiss me baby / And I'll be satisfied / You don't have to love me for a long time / Just be nice and kind". The accomplished guitar solo, however, could almost have been dubbed later from a Chicago studio. You want to hear the give-and-take of it with the drummer or the way the dynamics of the rhythm section are changed as the lead launches into a higher octave. The recording -- all clean lines and even modulation -- sterilizes this otherwise stinging couple of minutes.
Tunes like "That's Enough of That Stuff" and "La Ti Da" (both Ball originals) provide authentic New Orleans strut, but it's hard to hear them one generation removed from the real thing. Not that it's Disneyland Cajun -- there's no doubt that Ms. Ball has earned the grit this music requires -- but Boozoo Chavis it is not.
Frankly, the band sounds best when it rocks a bit more. "Down the Road" is a straighter kind of piano-rock, powered by the horn section playing straightforwardly jagged lines, and when the inevitable growling tenor solo comes, it feels right. "Crawfishin'" works similarly well -- a riff blues that could almost be Louis Jordan in the early '50s, building momentum with a propulsive backbeat-swing.
Let there be special mention of the song "Let Me Play with Your Poodle". Another 12-bar blues that moves down the tracks with locomotive clarity, this tune cries out to be dirty. The lyrics feint toward double-entendre but never really get there, and the band grooves with metronomic over-perfection. That said, toward the end of the tune, Ms. Ball lets fly with a sweet piano break over the drums that certainly tells what it is she really wants to play with. It doesn't help, however, that the outro music following this tune is an instrumental snippet of James Brown's "Sex Machine", stripped of its grease. The announcer says to the crowd, "Marcia Ball!", and as much as you want to cheer her, there's something about the whole disc that feels too nice.
And, honestly, the last thing you want to be reminded of as you listen to Live! Down the Road is how much Marcia Ball looks like your best friend's mom and, you know, what she would sound like singing "Sex Machine".
Get up-a! Get on up! No thanks.
Still, the tour Ms. Ball gives you through the swampland and the Texas coast is never less than wise. She's not faking it, no matter how much the recording glosses her up. In the end, blame it on the Sierra Nevada guys, perhaps, while you wait for Ms. Ball to come through your town.