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Pianist Still Having A Ball With The Blues

Of the Oakland Press

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If Marcia Ball ever needs to be reminded that there’s an audience for the roots music she’s been playing for more than four decades, all she has to do is sit down at the piano in front of her great nieces and nephews.

“The little ones are 5 years old and 3 years old,” says Ball, 58, who’s one of the headliners for this year’s 9th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival in Detroit. “I play the piano for them. I’ll play the little plinkyplinky kid-sounding music, and they’ll sit there and politely listen.

“But if I start with the boogie woogie and really get rockin’, they jump up and dance. It’s totally infectious.”

Surprising? Not to Ball, a Texas native who now resides in Austin and is one of the elder stateswomen of that city’s vibrant music scene. She’s been spreading the good word of blues and boogie since the early ’70s, when she was in a band called Freda & the Firedogs, and since 1974, when she went solo.

And she only seems to be getting better with age. Her 2001 album “Presumed Innocent” won the W.C. Handy Blues Award for Blues Album of the Year.” It’s successor, “So Many Rivers,” earned her another pair of Handys, including Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Her latest outing is “Live! Down the Road,” an aural souvenir of a 2004 show in Chico, Calif., that shows why it’s not just toddlers who can’t sit still when Ball is pounding the ivories.

“This kind of music is not dying out,” says Ball. “It’s really alive and well. That’s the best part of going out and playing live — it gives people a chance to see how alive and well it is.”

Ball turned on to blues, country and other indigenous musics “with my little baby bottle in my mouth.” Born in Orange, Texas, and raised in Vinton, La., she hails from a family whose matriarchs all played piano. “My grandmother played honky tonk piano,” Ball recalls. “My aunt played popular music from the ’40s and ’50s, and a little bit of boogie woogie.

“So I’ve been trying to stretch my hands to try and make a walking bass octave all my life. And I still love it.”

Ball began taking piano lessons at five but gave them up at 14, shortly after being turned on to blues and R&B — and to singing by listening to Irma Thomas albums. She attended Louisiana State University briefly but “dropped out and fell in with the wrong crowd and started playing music,” with a rock band named Gum among others.

Ball and some of her “hippie” friends hit the road in 1970 intending to settle in San Francisco. But their car broke down in Austin, and she unwittingly found a new home.

“We were heading west to join The Movement,” Ball explains, “and we found The Movement in Austin — a more manageable form of it, in a sense. We had already missed the Summer of Love, so we just kind of stopped. (Austin) was far enough, and it was close enough.”

When Freda & the Firedogs broke up in 1974, Ball was pregnant and felt that she needed to work on her own terms rather than joining another band. She released her first solo album, a country set called “Circuit Queen,” in 1978, and has put out a dozen since — including “Sing It!,” a lauded collaboration with Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson.

Ball, who became a grandmother last month, contends that she “never got too far away from” blues and R&B, but she acknowledges that her most recent albums have purposefully returned her to the sound from whence she came.

“I intentionally picked the blues back up for two reasons,” says Ball, who predicts that her next album, which she’s currently working on, will be a politically charged affair.

“It’s what I do and went I grew up with. So I went back to my roots.

“And also, as you age and mature and progress, you get more respect in the blues, and they treat women better. You just don’t see any women of a certain age in country music or rock ’n’ roll. But the blues doesn’t care if you’re male or female, old or young — only if you’re good or not.”

The 9th Annual Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Oct. 5 and 6) at the Music Hall Center, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit. Koko Taylor & Her Blues Machine, the Tommy Castro Band, Ruthie Foster and Ana Popovic perform tonight. Marcia Ball, the Deanna Bogart Band, Leon Blue, Matt Wiger and Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson play Saturday. Tickets are $27-$47. Call (313) 887-8501 or visit www.amrf.net.

Web Site: www.amrf.net

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