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CD REVIEW -- Marcia Ball
GLT blues radio

MARCIA BALL

Shine Bright

Alligator Records

Marcia Ball CD

By Robin Zimmerman

Chicago might be known as the country’s “Blues Capitol,” but there are other U.S cities with a rich and rhythmic history. Chief among these are Austin, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. If an artist has ties to these musical meccas, they tend to get more experience and exposure than musicians from more lackluster locales.

Pianist and vocalist extraordinaire Marcia Ball has benefited from extended residencies in both cities. She counts Crescent City icons like Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas as her main musical influences. She was also a key player during Austin’s emerging music scene in the early seventies.

A longtime fixture at local gigs like FitzGerald’s “American Music Festival” and “Blues on the Fox,” Marcia Ball has found a receptive Chicago audience who love her blend of rollicking good-time blues, heartfelt ballads and lighthearted lyrics. Her connection to Chicago includes being on Alligator Records’ roster since 2001.

Just a year short of 70, Ball relishes her time bouncing around the road and interacting with her fan base. In addition to her highly-regarded live shows, she has risen to the occasion during her stints in the recording studio. Ball’s numerous industry accolades include ten Blues Music awards, ten Living Blues awards and five Grammy nominations. She also recently received “2018 Texas State Musician of the Year” honors.  

Ball is quick to note that her 50-year career has whisked by “in a flash.”  With longevity comes continued strides on the lyrical front. Through the years, Ball’s songwriting skills have evolved and reflect her unique take on relationships, road trips and the state of the world today.

It all comes full circle on her latest endeavor, Shine Bright. Ball penned 9 of the 12 songs and her range of emotions is spotlighted on every track.  The well-traveled Ball also made tracks back to her favorite stomping grounds for the sessions. Shine Bright was recorded in Maurice, Louisiana and Austin, Texas. It was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame and mixed by Jim Vollentine.  

Her regional roots run deep on the opening track, “Shine Bright” where Ball honors many of her heroines such as former Texas Governor Ann Richards and the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas for “stepping into the light and shining bright.”  

Other luminaries like the “amazing” Stephen Hawking, Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson are spotlighted during this upbeat opening number that focuses on positivity, kindness and loving life.

Ball comes out swinging on her cover version of Ernie K-Doe’s barrelhouse-style “I Got to Find Somebody.” Here, her full-throated, slightly bawdy delivery is backed by a stellar support team that includes some fine-sounding saxophones courtesy of Steve Berlin and Eric Bernhardt on baritone and tenor respectively.   

The horn and piano driven ride continues with “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like that Anymore.” This fun romp is Ball’s nostalgic look back on life and her love of all things “built to last.”  Whether it’s her grandma’s colossal Lincoln Continental or songs from her musically-rich youth, Ball shows a keen appreciation for the stuff that “holds together.”  

The Latin-flavored “Life of the Party” is next on Ball’s playlist and seems destined to be a fan favorite at her next round of live shows.  One can only picture a full-blown Congo line at FitzGerald’s with the crowd singing along with “Long Tall” Marcia Ball.

After that party’s over, Ball circles back to full-throated gospel with a masterful version of Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You?”

For the next number, “When the Mardi Gras is Over,” Ball shifts gears and returns to NOLA party mode. She also takes some “Hot Horns” along with her for the ride. The quintet of sax and trumpets provides the perfect Carnival-style musical backdrop for this high-energy collaboration in which Ball shares songwriting credits with Shelley King and Tim Cook.

It seems fitting that both “When the Mardi Gras is Over” and “Take a Little Louisiana” were recorded at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana. Other songs that sprung from that “exceptional experience” is the R & B flavored “Once in a Lifetime Thing” and “I Got to Find Somebody.”  

          At both the Louisiana and Texas sessions, Ball had a first-rate cast of musicians to accompany her. The team at Dockside Studios included Lee Allen Zemo on bass, Jermaine Prejean on drums and percussion, Roddie Romero on guitar and accordion and Eric Addock on the Hammond B3 organ. Steve Berlin is on baritone sax with Eric Bernhardt on tenor sax.

In keeping with her Texas roots, Ball isn’t shy about speaking her mind. She also thrives on setting “political songs to a good dance beat” and this is obvious on her next track, “Pots and Pans.” Here, she lays the groundwork for women’s political activism in an extremely rhythmic and catchy manner.

While Ball is a realist, she also remains relentlessly hopeful and upbeat—a personality trait that’s key to staying relevant in the music industry for 50 years. This optimism is front and center on “World Full of Love.” On this stripped- down track, Ball is perched at the piano with Red Young on Hammond B-3 organ and Mike Schermer on acoustic guitar.

For “I’m Glad I Did What I Did,” Ball takes a humorous look back at life and revels in the things she got away with back in the day. The “Hot Horns” are back to their usual musical tricks on this track as well as “Pots and Pans” and “What Would I Do.” Members of this group include Dan Bechdolt on baritone sax, Bernhardt on tenor sax, Justin Vasquez on alto sax and Steve Butts and Al Gomez Junior on trumpet.

“I’m Glad I Did What I Did” was recorded at Texas Treefort in Austin. The players at these sessions were Bruce Hughes on Bass, Conrad Choucroun on drums, Schermer on guitar and Red Young back on the Hammond B-3 organ.  

“Too Much for Me” is another signature high-energy Marcia Ball number. This track was also recorded in Austin, Texas with Don Bennett on bass, Corey Keller on drums, Schermer on guitar, Bernhardt on tenor sax and Steve Berlin on baritone sax.

Ball dedicated Shine Bright to musicians Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and Buckwheat Zydeco and their influence shines through on the final track. “Take a Little Louisiana” is an infectious tune and homage to one of her favorite musical stomping grounds.
          The liner notes in Shine Bright are chock-full of shout-outs to Ball’s extended network of friends, family members and fellow musicians including a wide variety of background vocalists and sound engineers whose considerable talents enhanced Shine Bright.  While Ball is the undisputed star of Shine Bright, it’s clear to see that it takes a village in various locales to produce a CD of this caliber.

Ball has said that she wanted to “make the best Marcia Ball record I could.” With Shine Bright, she has done just that. This new release radiates like a beacon of light that features everything from sparkling party tunes to reflective torch songs served up by a bright and versatile artist and her cohorts.

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