AUSTIN, Texas Marcia Ball, the queen of Gulf Coast piano, made her way to the mic at a show at Antone's early Saturday night with a screaming arpeggio produced by a slash of her hand across the keyboard.
Despite a start delayed by nearly a half-hour, the standing- (and dancing-) room-only crowd just kept flowing into the venerable downtown blues bar as Ball rocked her way through an hour-long set.
"This is a surprise," Ball remarked about the attendance at the show, which was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. "I didn't know I'd get my crowd to come out to a bar in broad daylight!"
With "That's Why I Love You," Ball set the tone for an evening of music that looked, for the most part, at the upbeat side of the blues, both musically and lyrically. The tall bandleader, wearing an electric-purple dress with banded red-and-gold trim, stood to sing the opener, welcoming her audience and letting her four-piece combo of sax, electric guitar, bass and drums drive the melody behind her supple Southern-inflected alto.
A Gulf Girl Top To Bottom
"Red Beans" (RealAudio excerpt), a Big Bill Morganfield tune from her album Blue House (Rounder, 1994), followed, with Ball moving to the keyboard for the rest of the evening, for her trademark combo of West Texas blues and Louisiana swamp boogie.
"It really boils down to the Gulf Coast for me," Ball said in an earlier conversation, "all the way from the Spanish stuff down by the Mexican border up to the coast way past Mobile (Ala.). ... It's everything that I love to play and listen to and eat!"
Ball began learning piano at age 5, in her hometown of Vinton, La. She heard her grandmother and aunt play boogie-woogie stride piano and popular songs and picked up Memphis blues and rock and New Orleans-style music along the way. After a move to Austin, where she still lives, Ball moved toward performing more blues and Louisiana-based music. "I intentionally picked blues because it comes most naturally to me," she said.
That was apparent in one of the more downbeat songs of the evening at Antone's, "Help Me," in which Ball's bluesy piano notes matched perfectly with her Texas-style wailing. Crossing the border back to Louisiana, she stirred up the gumbo with the second-line dance rhythms of "Sing It!" (RealAudio excerpt), the title cut from her 1998 Grammy and Handy Award-nominated recording with Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas on Rounder Records.
A Habit Not Worth Kicking
All the while, Ball was adding to the energy of her music by kicking the heck out of the piano leg. The trademark gesture evolved when Ball moved her keyboards to the front of the stage. "I couldn't sit primly with my ankles crossed and play, because it just did not rock," she says. So she crossed her legs and started swinging her feet instead.
"I don't know when I first started," she remarks, "but it worked. I could turn and talk to the audience, lead the band, ruin my shoes. ..."
Moving easily between driving good-time tunes such as "Good Rockin' Daddy" and soulful pieces such as "All a Woman Can Do," Ball kept the packed crowd engaged.
"I've always known it was OK to rock 'n' roll, and people respond to that," Ball remarked earlier. "But if you really want to touch them or make them remember you, you will bring a tear to their eye. ... You have to reach people emotionally in every way, and that comes down to lyrics."
That touch was especially apparent in the Allen Toussaint tune "I Wait Patiently," which Ball dedicated to Clifford Antone. "I really miss seeing him here." Ball said, "although I have to admit that at 8 o'clock and still broad daylight outside, it would be early, really, to expect him!" (Clifford Antone, the founder of the club, is serving a four-year prison sentence on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.)
Ball also served up a fine example of blues-rock, with thought-provoking lyrics in "Scene of the Crime, " a song she wrote with ace guitarist Stephen Bruton (Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt).
Ball offered the dancers another good time, with the upbeat look at love, "You Make Me Happy All the Time, " and painted a rollicking picture of Gulf Coast memories with "Crawfishin' " (RealAudio excerpt).
Has living in Austin, known as a songwriter's town, influenced Ball's approach to songwriting? She enjoys the challenge of being around so much great music, but, she says, "I have to tell my own story." That, she says, "is actually a very Austin thing to do. And my story, my life, is Louisiana."