One might think it was Marcia Ball’s staunch reputation raising roofs and tearing down walls that prompted the last minute venue change for her concert Saturday from downtown Valparaiso’s historic Memorial Opera House to the Porter County Expo Center, but in truth the move was due to ongoing construction work.
Regardless of where this saucy and sassy Southern sister plays, her infectious brand of boogie-woogie piano pounding is sure to rattle rafters once she and her stellar band light the burners on their robust musical stew, well-seasoned with elements of R&B, Creole, Cajun, Zydeco, and swamp rock and Texas blues.
Hailing from Vinton, La. - just across the Sabine River and the Texas border - Ball comes from a long line of instrumentalists. Her grandmother was a pianist, her father was a composer, and her aunt was a pianist. “My family was my first and certainly my strongest musical influence, but then I started hearing the local Cajun sounds and the soul music being played on the local radio stations,” recalled Ball, who became baptized in the swamp water sounds of Gulf Coast greats like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Clifton Chenier and Dr. John, and then became blues-infused after discovering such piano icons as Pinetop Perkins and Roosevelt Sykes.
“We were young and going to San Francisco with flowers in our hair like everybody else,” said Ball on how she came to settle in the Southwest music capitol of Austin, Texas over four decades ago. “We stopped in Austin for a while and just never left. It was the most creative and liberal city in Texas and it’s been a great place to live and to make music.”
Ball likens good music to good food in that it needs to be “flavorful.” In describing her live performances, Ball aspires to give her audiences “happy feet” and hopes they have as much “fun” as she and the band do while on stage.
On the subject of “happy feet,” Ball’s habit of sitting almost side-saddle at the piano while kicking her foot in time to the music has become a trademark. She said that well-known performance trait began when she opted to dress more feminine on stage.
“That began way back when I first started wearing dresses to gigs, when I started dressing up for shows instead of wearing jeans and cowboy boots,” she said.. “My legs just didn’t fit right under the piano, so I had to turn sideways a bit. The leg kicking is just a way to be active and release some energy. It’s a way to have some motion on stage. I’m pretty much tied to the piano when I’m up there, so I can’t walk the stage and move around like guitar players do. It’s also a good way for the band to keep an eye on me and to know if they’re playing the tempo I’m comfortable playing on any given song.”
Ball currently averages about 150-160 live concert dates during any given year and loves working today as much or more than ever. “I really enjoy playing and I have a wonderful, wonderful band,” she said.
“We’re a 5-piece with me on piano, my sax player Thad Scott, bassist Don Bennett, drummer Damien Llanes, and guitarist Michael Schermer,” continued Ball, who has amassed a plethora of accolades and awards over the years along with 14 albums. Her first nine were released by Rounder Records. The balance of them came via Chicago’s Alligator label, with the last four – “Roadside Attractions (2011), “Peace, Love & BBQ” (2008), “Live! Down The Road” (2005), and “So Many Rivers” (2003) – each receiving a Grammy nomination. Ball is currently writing material for her next as-yet-untitled Alligator release.
“We start off and warm up with a few songs pretty heavily weighted towards the ‘Roadside Attractions’ album, but after that we take the pulse of the audience and pick and choose from there. We’ll dig pretty far back (in my catalog) if that seems to be the way to go,” said Ball of not working off a predetermined “set list” for her live shows.
Ball said she often honors requests called out from the audience. “Most of my audience has grown with me over the years, so I want to give them the best show I can and play the songs they want,” she said. “I hope everyone comes out Saturday because we’ll warm them up a bit from the winter cold.”