Live at the historically named (!) Town Hall 1873, it was a blooze deluxe evening to stave off the Canadian chill.
PHOTOS/TEXT BY ERIC THOM
On a very cold, still-winter night in the tiny town of Port Perry (an hour or so northeast of Toronto), an even smaller Town Hall – built in 1873 – awaited its Friday night crowd of 234, nestled into banked seating in its renovated theatre. Despite being more than 2,000 km. from the nearest Po’ Boy shrimp, chargrilled oysters or crawfish gumbo, these fortunate few would shortly find themselves immersed in the deeply mysterious charm of New Orleans’ finest exports – and a double-bill to remember.
Although Marcia Ball was born in Texas, she was raised in Vinton, Louisiana, working hard to cement her reputation as a soulful cross of Cajun-soaked swamp rock, N’awlins soul and Texas blues. A talented, contemporary songwriter, rich of voice and a renowned practitioner of two-fisted, barrelhouse piano and spirited boogie-woogie, Ball is – above all else – a regal lady of the first order. Sitting cross-legged behind her trusty Roland keyboard – her top leg bouncing to the music like a band-leading metronome – she thoroughly inhabits each song, living only to deliver on the party portion of her good time promise. Well-known for her ability to conjure a bona fide party atmosphere from thin air, it was as fair as it was appropriate to have her take the lead for this show. Ladies first.
Sonny Landreth, another small-town kid, hails from Canton, Mississippi and grew up, knee-deep, in the shadowy bayuks of southwest Louisiana. With the sunny disposition of a favourite neighbor – the kind who shows up at your door carrying two beers – this unimposing King of Slydeco has built a reputation as the world’s greatest slide guitarist one new sound at a time, specializing in his own unorthodox hybrid of country blues, zydeco, rock and every influence he’s ever absorbed. Right down to each lyric, Landreth conjures a strong sense of place – supernaturally so – and his unassuming approach to the mastery of his craft endears him to each dedicated fan.
Wasting no time, Ball & Co. kicked off with Muddy Water’s “Having a Natural Ball” – clearly defining the moment – her aggressive keyboards not quite dominating the rest of her sturdy, 4-piece band. Substituting sax for button accordion, Ball leans heavily on her band to enhance her passionate playing with all the right ingredients. Eric Bernhardt’s animated tenor sax delivered integral bursts of joy as guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer anchored each and every song with tasteful dollops of strong, blues-hued leads and his patented, rhythmic command. Drummer Corey Keller and smooth-as-glass bassist Don Bennett redefined dynamic intensity, providing sturdy backdrop to Ball’s every twist and turn. Muddy Water’s “Red Beans” continued Ball’s display of high-torque energy, allowing her to demonstrate her still-powerful voice and overall keyboard powers, leg a-pumpin’. An early highlight was Duke Robillard’s “Just Kiss Me”, which Ball quickly owned as Schermer drove it home with a rich solo. “That’s Enough of that Stuff” offered Ball the opportunity to wow the uninitiated with her phenomenal piano skills, while injecting the night with some highly Neville-ish N’Awlins sounds. The rollicking title track from “Roadside Attractions” (with its reference to nearby Niagara Falls) made good on its rich, piano-driven groove and while Ball’s voice could occasionally be heard to falter slightly, these songs are putty in her hands of those of her accomplished band. The title track to her latest, “Shine Bright”, makes an important statement towards doing ‘the right thing’ and, with an appropriate intro and a funked-up version driven by both Schermer and Keller, you could see Ball’s eyes close, truly enjoying herself. Ball’s take on Ernie K-Doe’s “I Got To Find Somebody”, from the same record, continued the slinky groove into Second Line territory while the sax-led cover of Jesse Winchester’s “Take A Little Louisiana” set up a creative duel between Ball and Bernhardt on their respective instruments. From the same new release, the laidback “What Would I Do Without You” was a master class on Ball’s sophisticated songwriting, robust piano-playing and heartfelt, bluesy vocals, with an able assist from Bernhardt. Mighty Mike Schermer, too, strutted his stuff with his own humourous composition, “Bad Tattoo”, from his 7th solo release – a swinging groove featuring his own raw-edged vocal, stinging leads and a stellar tenor solo from Bernhardt. Returning to her latest release, Ball’s own “Life of the Party” (is she not the poster girl?) created a raucous, dance-friendly, cajón-fired fete which, although it started in Port Perry, was only a few “Olé’s” short of Mexico. The true jaw-dropper of the evening arrived with Ball’s cover of Randy Newman’s soul-searching “Louisiana 1927” (covered on ‘97’s Poodle). Her vocals dripping with emotion, you could feel the pain if not half-expect to see her tears as Bernhardt seared the wound with simpatico tenor sax – a true show-stopper. But not one to stop any show, Ball closed with the ultimate, feel-good antidote to hard times, “The Party’s Still Going On” (Roadside Attractions) – replete with rollicking piano, rocking sax and all the signs of a band not quite ready to leave. A quick send-off of Little Bob Camille’s “I Got Loaded” allowed Ball, Bernhardt and Schermer one last opportunity to say goodbye.
Next up, Sonny Landreth and his trio (bassist, Dave Ranson and drummer, Brian Brignac) introduced a two-part presentation, mirroring his latest release, Recorded Live In Lafayette – an acoustic and electric collection of some of his greatest songs. Sonny apologized (as only he can) in advance for the forthcoming switchover between sets. Sitting down with a beautifully- customized (a hubcap worked into the design), resophonic, steel-body guitar, Dave sported a distinctive ukulele bass while Brignac assaulted a cajón. Hardcore Sonny fans spoiled by, and more accustomed to, his electric shows had nothing to cry about here as songs like “Blues Attack” and “Hell At Home” detonated the same concussive powers as ever, subtly so. The house system struggled to isolate Landreth’s gentle vocals at times, yet nothing could take away from the expected display of fingerstyle genius, explorative technique and musical inroads to the very concept of injecting beautiful music with equal parts magic and creative ingenuity. Of special note was Landreth’s treatment of Charlie Segar’s dramatically over-recorded “Key To The Highway”. Not so, in Sonny’s hands, its laidback pace actually providing him the keys to an empty science lab of untethered experimentation and exploration. Untold textures and pure alchemy ensued across these 5 acoustic numbers in all their muted glory. The comparably upbeat “Creole Angel” stood out for the simple reason that it seems to fit Landreth’s very being so perfectly – a hauntingly transcendent blend of place and time. The acoustic set also permitted fans the opportunity to observe his prodigious imagination on full display, uncoloured by any electronic effects and free to tap into one’s full emotional palette. After a surprisingly short stage adjustment, the amiable maestro returned with his trio (and a pair of ’57 reissue Strats from the late ’80s) to once again redefine what could normally be considered a tired staple in Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”. Landreth clearly made the better deal with the Devil. Likewise, Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” proved malleable in his dextrous hands, although his vocals grew increasingly murky with the increased amplification. Enquiring whether we “needed some noise”, the band kicked into a wickedly slippery instrumental (as Brignac, too, had moved to a full kit to match Branson’s deep-digging electric bass), which became Landreth’s own “The Milky Way Home” – a song slightly reminiscent of the like-minded Eric Johnson and his other-worldly style (the two having recorded this gem together on ‘08’s From The Reach), given its virtuosic reach into the cosmos in search of sonic perfection. Elemental Journey’s “Brave New Girl” furthered this far-reaching, instrumental dream sequence as Landreth continued to dazzle with jaw-dropping technique, the entire band immersed in their respective musical zones, only to come up for air with the jig-like crowd-pleaser, “Native Stepson” – one of the strongest renditions of the night (on a night devoid of disappointment). This boisterous, foot-stomping track celebrates the very spirit of zydeco as only Landreth can conjure, pushing his slide skills and ‘behind the slide’ artistry to into mind-numbing turf. Offering a verbal tribute to his late friend and early hero, Johnny Winter, Landreth eulogized the white-haired Texan with “Firebird Blues”, channeling more of a Texas blue hue than usually found this side of Louisiana. Attributed to Eric Johnson, ‘Middle of the Road’ closed the night yet, thankfully, the trio was quick to return with a rousing rip through Grant Street‘s devil-may-care “Pedal to the Metal”. By this time, nobody was talking refunds and the rare opportunity to meet both Sonny and Marcia in the basement of the venerable Town Hall proved a rare bonus.
The venerable venue proved an integral component to the overall enjoyment of this show, reducing the distance between performer and audience, which is what this music’s all about. Kudos to Music By The Bay for creating fresh access to live music in off-the-beaten track music settings, where each note can be heard and treasured in a less frenetic setting, providing underserved communities with the chance to experience the absolute joy of live music played by true professionals.
Marcia Ball – “Shine Bright”:
“That’s Enough of that Stuff:
Sonny Landreth – “The Milky Way Home”:
“Pedal to the Metal”: