Marcia Ball – Shine Bright
12 tracks / 42:21
Marcia Ball has a career that would be the envy of most any blues artist, and the past five decades of hard work have earned her numerous accolades. These include multiple BMA awards and Grammy nominations, as well as induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame and being named the 2018 Texas State Musician by the Texas State legislature. It would be easy to call Marcia a legend, but that might imply that her career is winding down, which is the furthest thing from the truth: her new Alligator Records release, Shine Bright, is probably her best work yet!
Ball was born in Texas and grew up in Louisiana, and her sound reflects the blues traditions of both of these fine states. She started taking piano lessons when she was five, and when she was a teenager she was awakened to soul music after hearing Irma Thomas perform in New Orleans. After college, Marcia headed to San Francisco where she worked the clubs and delved deeper into the music of Professor Longhair. Her solo career started in the mid-1970s when she moved back to the gulf states, and since then she has been cutting numerous well-regarded albums, as well as appearing on both the small and large screens. The end result of all of this is a seasoned performer with exceptional piano, vocal, and songwriting skills.
For her new album, Marcia brought in Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, The Blasters) as producer, and the studio sessions took place in Texas and Louisiana. This means that a lot of musicians contributed to the project – 19, if I counted correctly! The core of these folks is her touring band, which includes guitarist Mike Schermer, Don Bennett on bass, Corey Keller behind the drums, and the sax of Eric Bernhardt. Ball wrote nine of the twelve songs on Shine Bright, and none of them are over 4 ½ minutes, meaning that there is not a lot of soloing or filler material to be found here. The engineering is spot-on, with a great mix from Jim Volletine, and Berlin did a stand-up job with putting together this project.
The title track kicks things off, and “Shine Bright” is an upbeat rhythm and blues tune. The backing vocals of Shelley King and Carolyn Wonderland provide a gospel feel, and the whole thing has a NOLA beat thanks to the drums of Conrad Choucron. Marcia has a rich tenor voice that can get edgy when needed, and her lyrics implore the listener to be the best they can. In the course of doing this she provides quite the list of folks who can inspire us, from Jackie Robinson to Stephen Hawking. This is a strong start, and it lays a foundation of positivity that plays out for rest of the album.
From there, the original songs cover a lot of ground, but always pay homage to Ball’s roots and life story. Her Pelican State connection is out there for all to hear on “When the Mardi Gras is Over” and “Take a Little Louisiana.” The latter is an upbeat zydeco tune with a healthy dose of accordion from Roddie Romero and pretty backing vocals from Yvette Landry; this song ends up being a wise choice to close out the album. Marcia’s Texas connections are a little more subtle, but are always in the background, especially on the more rocking blues songs, such as “Too Much for Me,” “I’m Glad I Did What I Did,” and “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That.”
There are a few cover songs on the set list too. Ernie K-Doe’s “I Got to Find Somebody” was originally recorded in 1962, and Marcia goes all out to deliver a vocal performance with the appropriate amount of personality. Ball takes a short piano solo on this one, as does Eric Bernhardt on the sax. It is very well done, and this song is a fine representation of the fun New Orleans spirit that Ernie was famous for. There is also a sweet rendition of Ray Charles’ 1964 gem, “What Would I Do Without You.” This ballad features Red Young on the Hammond B-3, and the Hot Horns help to set the glorious gospel mood as Ball lays down some seriously soulful vocals.
Shine Bright is full of well-written songs with positive messages, and this talented crew performs each tune with skill. Marcia Ball is on top of her game, and it kind of makes me wonder what is next for her. But whatever it is, it will surely be worth her efforts and a wise use of the listeners’ time. In the meantime, head over to her website to hear some samples and to see where she will be performing next, because her live show has to be seen to believed!