You gotta love Marcia Ball. I defy anyone to resist this willowy Gulf Coast piano pounder and her blend of roots rock and soulful R&B. Her Royal Tallness presides upright, sidesaddle on the bench, crossed-leg bouncing time, hypnotic with a deep groove. She is one of a few who can carry the tradition of the rock ‘n’ roll piano greats, and she sings like a woman who knows.

One rainy day under a tent in a midwestern field, she chatted easily in the wings, with an eye on her band warming the stage. When the drums played alone, ramped up a notch, the guitar player announced her, and she shifted into another gear. Propelled, she strode onto and across the stage, acknowledged the crowd, stood next to the piano, and began hollering the Gary U.S. Bonds classic “New Orleans”: “I said-a hey, hey, hey, hey yeah!” The crowd surged forward, and the ritual began, fan favorites mixing with choice picks from recent releases, Texicana R&B brought to date with no apology. “Right Tool for the Job” crossed a guitar boogie riff with a steady second line. Her Professor Longhair roots were showing on “La Ti Da.” She might be at her best on soulful ballads, and when she sang the first line of the Irma Thomas classic “It’s Raining,” the mud-splattered fans let out a knowing roar. Ball’s direct connection with her audience seems effortless.

Since debuting as a bandleader in the late 1970s, she has played virtually every major music festival in the United States and Europe and kept a steady recording output as well. In addition to her critically acclaimed Rounder albums (Soulful Dress, Hot Tamale Baby, Gatorhythms, Blue House, and Let Me Play with Your Poodle), Ball found time to collaborate with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton on a well-received album, Dreams Come True. At the end of 1997 she finished work on a similar “three divas of the blues” project for Rounder, this time in the distinguished company of Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson. The album, Sing It!, was released in January 1998 and was nominated both for a Grammy and for a W. C. Handy Award as contemporary blues album of the year.

Five years ago Ball moved to Alligator Records, a much-respected blues label based in Chicago. Her first album for Alligator, Presumed Innocent, spent seven months on the Billboard blues charts, garnered a mountain of good press, and won the 2002 Handy Award for blues album of the year. She followed that up with So Many Rivers in 2003 and Live! down the Road in 2005.

In an era of music played by computers, lip-synched by dancers, and performed by models, it’s reassuring that Marcia Ball stays on the scene. She is the real thing. You gotta love her.

Marcia Ball appears on a double bill with Chris Smith at the Ark’s “Bourbon Street Blues” fall fund-raiser on Saturday, November 18.

[Review published November 2006]