If there’s one person who can blend the sounds of Southern soul with Texas blues, it’s Marcia Ball. The prolific singer-songwriter was raised in Louisiana and now lives in Austin, one of the hotbeds of American music. Thus, it wasn’t extremely difficult for Ball to find new musicians for her band during some recent personnel changes.
“You just go down to the corner and pick somebody up,” Ball said with a laugh of adding to her lineup Johnny Moeller and Jay Moeller, both of whom played with Texas’s own Fabulous Thunderbirds. “I’ve known [Johnny] for years, but never really worked with him closely like this. And he’s just delightful.”
Ball will be co-headlining two area shows of acoustic songs alongside Tinsley Ellis, first at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis March 28 and then the Pearl Street Warehouse in D.C. March 29. Each artist will perform a set and then jam together for the finale. Ball says the artists will share stories about the songs’ gestation, making the evening not just a concert but a conversation. Sometimes her co-headliner will even toss in a curveball, such as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.”
“When Tinsley comes in and gets his [soundcheck] right, we usually sit there and talk about music and talk about songs,” Ball said. “So we’ve been doing something different nearly every night. Sometimes the same thing, but we’ve [also] been winging it.”
She adds that her own acoustic set will include fan favorites that are over a quarter-century in the rearview, and ones fans might not have heard so stripped down.
“A lot of those songs are still people’s favorite,” Ball said, adding that fans on this tour can expect to hear live renditions of tracks from her seminal album Gatorhythms from 1989. “It’s been fun.”
Ball has nearly two dozen records to her credit, including Shine Bright from 2018, which was produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. Her accolades include being named the 2021 Living Blues Readers’ Award for Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboards), induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and named 2018 Official Texas State Musician.
Known for her wizardry at the keyboards, Ball says she is jazzed in that many of the venues she’ll be playing on the tour with Ellis have in-house grand pianos, allowing her to fill the room with the sounds of real tickled ivories versus the electronic variety.
“With the band, I play a keyboard…but this tour, I get to play Steinways and beautiful pianos,” she said. “I play for an hour [at soundcheck] and let them figure out the sound around me. I’m just enjoying exercising it.”
Ball comes from a musical family, and being raised in the South helped expose her to soul, gospel, blues and rock—all of which call for some spirited work at the piano. The Louisiana influence on her work is palpable, with elements of zydeco peppering the DNA of her compositions. Her first album, Freda and the Firedogs, dropped in 1972—when the business of show for musicians was much different than now.
“Everything is more expensive. Travel is more expensive,” Ball said of working in the modern times of streaming. “Because my crowd is aging along with me in a way, [even] my venues are different.”
The songwriter is excited about returning to the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, where she has performed many times before. In addition, Ball has assayed such vaunted capital-area stages as the Birchmere, the State Theatre, the Hamilton and the famous Twist and Shout in Bethesda, which closed in 1992.
“I am going to stay with an old friend of mine in Baltimore when I play in the area,” Ball said of her upcoming stint in the DMV. “I’ve got a number of really good friends in the D.C. area, so I’m very happy to be able to go and visit them.”
She’s thankful to not only return to the capital region, but to be out on the road playing for enthusiastic audiences again full stop. As the covid pandemic has waned, Ball was uncertain what touring would look like in this strange new world. Her band lineup has changed, but as she is quick to remind us, “everything” changed thanks to the coronavirus and its fallout.
“I had the same bass player for 40 years, and he did not go out after the pandemic. I had the same guitar player for about 15 years, and he moved to the west coast,” Ball said, adding that her new bass player is a fabulous musician from Canada. “My sax player lives in New Orleans, but I think he’s moving to the east coast. So yeah.
“You don’t know when you have to slow down or stop,” she said, or “what circumstances might create, so I’m just glad to be out there. Having this whole tour booked, it’s allowing me to touch a lot of bases.”
That’s perhaps the type of optimism that has kept Ball working and plying her trade for so many decades, during times flush and fallow. It’s undeniably more difficult for anyone starting out now, but Ball maintains that following your passion and playing to perfection are all part of the life for professional musicians.
“There’s always hope, and just play your music the best you can,” she said. “Get the best people you can, play your music the best you can—and drive carefully. Don’t drink and drive!”
Ball hopes that music lovers who come out to the Rams Head On Stage and the Pearl Street Warehouse leave the venues with their spirits stirred. Remember, you’ll get the chance to see Ball tapping away on grand pianos, as opposed to the electric keyboard she typically plucks when touring with her full band behind her.
“It’s all different for me playing by myself in this way, but apparently I can still throw energy out there,” she said. “I even had some dancers the other night.”
Marcia Ball and Tinsley Ellis will perform acoustic sets at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis March 28 and the Pearl Street Warehouse in D.C. March 29. To purchase tickets, go to MarciaBall.com.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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