Regattabar, Cambridge, MA
January 24, 2007
Heads in the crowd were bobbing, bodies shimmying to the beat, and patrons hooting and whistling after each song. This wasn’t Avalon, or even The Orpheum in Boston. It was the Regattabar in Cambridge. This, my friends, is not standard operating procedure for the staid jazz bar on the second floor of the Charles Hotel.
You might witness theatric behavior outside the hotel, say, in Harvard Square, where street jugglers, magicians, and itinerant musicians operate in extroverted bliss. But inside the Regattabar? I don’t think so.
The long-legged woman pounding the daylights out of the electric keyboard would have been right at home doing it outside where the action is fast and loose. But there she was on stage, Marcia Ball, dazzling a mostly middle-aged bunch of closet rockers out of their minds.
Marcia Ball is not a household name in these parts but apparently every household in which her name is known was attending this show. Or the next set or the two sets on Thursday because the place was packed and every show sold out. What’s the deal?
Ms. Ball is the real deal when it comes to Texas blues, Louisiana R&B and Gulf Coast swamp pop. If she hasn’t written the book about the genres, she’s been singing them for thirty years. If you saw her in the Harvard Coop, you’d assume that the prim looking, gray haired, ramrod straight, six-foot woman wearing the scoop necked jersey top and ankle length black skirt was managing a nearby library.
Uhn, Uhnn. What she was in charge of that night was a crack four-piece band that played a brand of honky-tonk and bluesy Texas/Louisiana music so hot the patrons in the front rows had their eyebrows singed.
If you’ve ever wondered how residents would recover after two fierce storms named Katrina and Rita beat down Louisiana and left it for dead, listening to Marcia Ball’s music would explain a lot.
The howling wind and surging water crushed dance halls, diners, restaurants, and theaters where the locals congregated. Entire neighborhoods disappeared. When the water receded, the first thing some of these people did was to dig barbecue pits and figure out a way to sing and dance again.
The predominant themes of Gulf Coast music are family, good food, and good lovin’. It must be said here that it’s often hard to distinguish exactly whether what’s cooking is gumbo or hormones.
Ball’s sous-chefs for the evening were Mike Keller (guitar), Chad Scott (saxophone), Cory Keller (percussion), and Don Bennett (bass).
“I Got My Red Beans Cookin’” got the audience loosened up with Ball’s honky-tonk piano, Scott's hard driving sax, and Keller's guitar solo. “Just Kiss Me Baby (“that’s all you have to do, and I’ll be satisfied)”was a satisfyingly standard bluesy number until young Mike Keller unleashed a slow, sensual guitar solo that made you realize that a kiss was just the beginning of what the lady had in mind. Keller fingered the strings with just the right rhythm for kissing and other activities then finished with a lightning lick that brought fans out of their seats. Judging from the audience’s raucous response, Keller’s bluesy frankness might have postponed many couples’ sleep for an hour or so when they got home.
Born in Orange, Texas, in 1949, Ball’s life was transformed after she heard blues legend Irma Thomas when she was 13. When Ball formed her first band, Thomas’s songs were on the playlist. Watch Ball's fingers and elbows roam up and down the keyboard you can even see a shade of Jerry Lee Lewis. She does everything but plunk her fanny on the keyboard as Lewis used to do.
The relatively small room, and ragingly devoted audience ignited a two-hour concert (titles below).
Up-tempo songs like “Gonna Forget About You” and Zydeco chugging “That’s Enough Of That Stuff” were setups for ballads like “Every Day Will Be A Holiday When My Baby Comes Home” and slow burners like a cover of Etta James’s “Good Rockin’ Daddy.”
By the time Ball joyously sang “The happiest I’ve ever been, is when my feet are on the road to sin,“ a refrain from swamp boogeying “La Ti Dah, " the steadily eroding façade of Brahmin reserve had completely broken down. People were boogeying in their seats, some while hugging their partners. “No matter how long you’ve been gone, we’re going to party till you come home,” she sang. Baton Rouge could have been just outside the door.
Ball often looked up from pounding the keyboard to smile broadly at the audience and easily filled a few minutes between several songs to tell tiny stories while the band took a breath. One that got a big laugh came before she sang about her youth in her home town in “Down The Road, ”- “The rules changed at the river” (border between TX and LA), she said. “You could drink legally in Louisiana at age 18, not 21 as in Texas, so on Saturday nights bunches of Baptists from Texas crossed the bridge and acted like Catholics.”
By the time Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” was over you could smell the gumbo in the pot, hear mothers calling their kids home for dinner, and feel homesick for a state a thousand miles away that you’ve never set foot in.
The set ended with the Bayou anthem “Crawfishin’”. “Bring cousins by the dozen and tell them to bring some wine, we’ll go crawfishin’ and we’ll have a real good time.”
I’ve already packed my bags.
For more about Marcia Ball, click https://www.rosebudus.com/ball/index.html
Playlist of first set at Regattabar, January 24, 2007
“Rockin’ Is Our Business”
“Just Kiss Me Baby”
“Gonna Forget About You”
“That’s Enough Of That Stuff”
“Every Day Will Be A Holiday When My Baby Comes Home”
“Good Rockin’ Daddy”
“La Ti Dah”
“Yeah Baby I’m a Red Hot”
“It’s A Miracle”
“Down the road”
“I Love You Baby”
Encores - three of ‘em
“She’s So Innocent”
I was so busy clapping that I didn’t write it down