Live! Down The Road captures Gulf Coast blues stomper Marcia Ball at her absolute best. This disc does as good of a job in capturing the energy and mojo of a live performance as any live recording I've heard before.
If you've ever seen this scintillating pianist / singer in concert, then you'll know exactly what's in store. In fact, you've probably already stopped reading this review and are hightailing it to your favorite music store or online commerce site to get a copy of this disc ASAP.
For those of you still paying attention, here's what you can expect from Live! Down The Road. Ms. Ball always plays her butt off every time she sits down at the keyboards; this particular show, recorded in Chico, California at Sierra Nevada Brewery's Big Room, is no exception. Simply put, she was in excellent form that night and her regular backing band smoked.
The sound quality is so good that you'll want to put on headphones and crank up the volume just to try to find any flaw in the recording. You won't.
The show opens with one of her regular numbers, the rollicking "Big Shot." You'll be tempted to hit the replay button numerous times to hear this song over and over, but show some restraint. There's still lots of good stuff to follow.
Guitarist Pat Boyack, a fine recording artist in his own right, provides one of the highlights on "The Right Tool For The Job," turning in a couple of hot solos to complement Ms. Ball's tasteful piano work.
"That's Enough Of That Stuff," a New Orleans flavored up-tempo second line number gives a couple of other band members a chance to take a turn at the front of the stage, with tenor sax player Brad Andrew and B-3 man Red Young both contributing great instrumental breaks.
Another similar New Orleans type number, "La Ti Da," was first recorded by Ms Ball on the 1989 Gatorhythms album. It's been a regular part of her live shows since then, and for good reason --- it gives her the chance to really stretch out and play some nice piano.
Fellow Texas singer Angela Strehli joins the band for a duet with Ball on the mid-tempo "It Hurts To Be In Love."
The title cut, "Down The Road," tells such a vivid story that the one can't help but visualize riding along with Ball and friends along a backwoods Louisiana highway to some sleazy jook joint.
The band redefines the term 'up-tempo' and the frenetic "Crawfishin'," that has Ball's fingers roaming up and down the keyboard at a breakneck pace, at times turning this swamp classic into a fiery boogie woogie. Andrew throws in an extended sax solo that will leave the listener as breathless as he must have been after playing it.
Just when she has the live audience whipped into a total frenzy, Marcia brings them back down to a slow sway on what to me is the highlight of the disc, an absolutely beautiful version of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927." As much as most of her music really defines "party music," it's songs like this one that really distinguish her as a great, great artist.
After a couple of other cuts, Ms. Ball closes the show with another extended frantic number in Tampa Red's "Let Me Play With Your Poodle." This one lasts close to eight minutes, so every instrumentalist gets one final chance to shine. They all seize the opportunity and run with it.
I'm somewhat hesitant to declare a live of mostly previously released material as the best disc of the year, but I can't imagine anything else moving me as much as this disc does every time I listen to it. While it would have been more fun being at this show, Live! Down The Road is the next best thing.
--- Bill Mitchell
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Revised: June 30, 2005 - Version 1.00
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