by James M. Manheim
Marcia Ball has been known for blues songs based on her sharp, precise piano playing party music for those who enjoy watching the piano player as much as dancing. But her latest release, So Many Rivers, is something else again. "This record is dedicated to the songwriters," Ball says on the CD's sleeve. While her piano is always present, it comes to the foreground mostly for intros, outros, and the occasional comment rather than functioning as the extension of Ball's musical soul. If you thought you had her figured out, check out her concert at the Ark on Monday, July 21, because she's up to new things here.
Up to now, many of Ball's songs have had a vaguely feminist orientation, drawing on the music of the classic blues queens and also turning male blues ideas on their heads. Among her new songs, her independent-blueswoman persona is in evidence on "Foreclose on the House of Love," which is written from the traditionally male breadwinner perspective, but for the most part Ball is concerned with love's subtleties and failures. Her dedication to other songwriters is slightly odd; Ball herself wrote six of the fourteen songs on the album. But a songwriter's album it is nonetheless: some of these pieces are classics in the making.
The Ark has always been a club ideally suited to music with the dimensions of Ball's, and a song like "Give Me a Chance," totally immersed in the spirit of classic Mahalia Jackson-style gospel but artfully made into a secular love song, should fill itself out on the Ark stage in a way that can never happen in a digital environment. And Ball tries out a fairly involved song from time to time. Several new ones, from the pen of Austin writer and keyboardist Danny Timms, should come across way better at the Ark than in the mud of the outdoor festivals that are the other usual places to hear Marcia Ball
and where "Hurricane at China Lake," a nicely controlled metaphorical treatment of gradual entrapment in destructive temptation, might sound like just another song about a storm.
Ball looks fabulous these daysbetween her and Emmylou Harris, gray hair is getting to be a fashion statement. Sure, there are a few annoying moments on Ball's new album: the words "so many rivers to cross" should never have been used to describe the mundane rigors of commuter marriage. But for the most part Ball's new work is both mature and ambitious, and a trip to see her in concert promises both a good time and a way to investigate just how many different kinds of songs are being made from the basic stuff of the blues these days.
[Originally published in July, 2003.]