As New Orleans reeled from the August floods, the distant mountain city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was serene with blue skies, cool nights and the plaza near the Cathedral, not unlike Jackson Square, held a magnet for the people with a concert stage for musicians.
The crowd was thick when Marcia Ball, the rhythm-and-blues chanteuse, poised at her seat behind the keyboard, got the masses moving with a rippling tempo on “Right Tool For the Job,” and witty double-entendre lyrics about whether big boy has the equipment it takes to satisfy some kind of woman. My, my, my, the people loved it.
Marcia Ball grew up in the small town of Vinton, Louisiana, west of Lake Charles, just shy of the Texas border. A Cajun swing sound echoes in her song bag. That said, Marcia Ball, long based in Austin, is best known for a magical pulse that extends the long line of New Orleans R&B piano singers – Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Art Neville, James Booker, Huey “Piano” Smith and such latter day lights as Harry Connick, Jr., Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford, David Torkanowsky and the ever-soaring Tom McDermott.
Am I missing another woman in this vibrant lineage?
Dancing is the heart’s blood of a tradition that takes the rhythms of the streets – as Fess did in “Go To The Mardi Gras,” or Artie in his take on “Iko Iko,” an Indian tune on The Wild Tchoupitoulas – and channels the cross-current of feet on the street into a keyboard stride that roams while yielding space for horns as in a vocal chorus, and the rocking backbeat on drums. The taproot is a second line sound, a parade beat, but it’s only as rich as the imagination of a given lyricist.
There is a more delicate side to the tradition, as Toussaint furnished in moody waltzes like “With You in Mind,” among many one could name.
One feat for an artist seeking a place in the tradition is to show the chops to do justice to core songs, like “Tipitina.” But the larger challenge in this line of singing piano players is how to rework pieces of the tradition into something new. You can rock on past midnight to Ball’s high-kicking “Party Town” off the recent Peace, Love & BBQ cd.
There’s dancing in the street
There’s magic in the air
Everybody’s having fun
Just when you think the party’s over
Another’s one just begun
In New Orleans, oh New Orleans,
That’s where I want to be
The poetry in another one, “Down in the Neigborhood,” is more universal, yet a sonorous echo of Vinton – or Bywater, New Orleans.
I found just the other day
You been cheating
While I looked the other way
I been trusting
You been up to no good
You can’t have any secrets
Down in the neighborhood.
In Santa Fe she had the crowd in her hand, ranging along through numbers old and new; she stopped, with a lowered octave to shift the mood. “We’re thinking about New Orleans, again, what people are going through” – cataclysmic rains, a haunting Katrina refrain. Then she sang Randy Newman’s flood song, “Louisiana 1927” with a catch in her voice to match the moment.