In 2004 the Blues Foundation decided to share the spoils and award its Keyboard Musician of the Year Award to someone other than Pinetop Perkins, who had won it a dozen years in a row. Perkins, at the time 90 years old, may by then have been winning by sentiment instead of by his digital prowess, although his technique was still formidable. As the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award was inaugurated, such stellar artists as Dr. John, Honey Piazza, and Henry Butler must have rejoiced at having a chance at overdue recognition. Marcia Ball was in the game, too. A perennial nominee, she watched Dr. John win the award in 2004, but for the last 3 years, 2005-2007, she has claimed the prize. Her new Alligator release further cements her deservedly notable reputation.
Although “Peace, Love & BBQ” primarily reflects Ball’s Texas and Louisiana roots in its emphasis on East Texas soul and swing melded with Louisiana strut and gumbo, there is room for country, gospel, and honky-tonk rock. The album blasts off with “Party Town,” immediately provoking an irresistible urge to dance in this listener. The title tune follows; penned by Phantom Blues Band members Tony Braunagel and Johnnie Lee Schell, it moderates the tempo and features Ball’s sparkly piano and the tasty backing vocals of Gage and Albert. Next is one of the eight songs composed by Ball herself, “Miracle in Knoxville,” an eerie tune of death and redemption with Ball on accordion and Stephen Bruton on mandolin.
The rest of the songs maintain the high quality of musicianship, generally alternating between uptempo and slower paces. Highlights abound. “Watermelon Time” is an infectious melding of rhythm section and saxophone, with a boffo piano solo by Ball. Horn accompaniment on multiple cuts by Thad Scott and the “L.A. Horns” is rivaled by the lap steel contribution of Cindy Cashdollar and the accordion stylings of Wayne Toups and Terrance Simien. Tracy Nelson is among the vocal harmonizers. A Ball vocal duet with Dr. John, “I’ll Never Be Free,” represents the best in piano lounge music (that’s not a put-down!), and is followed soon after by my favorite song on the album, “Right Back in It,” a honky-tonk rocker featuring hot piano and guitar breaks and lyrics of wry fatalism. “Ride It Out” is an ode to hurricane survival, certainly appropriate in this post-Katrina era, and the disc ends with the slightly mawkish but still positive “I Wish You Well.”
None of the songs is destined to be a classic, but each -- the covers and Ball’s originals -- is worthy of the stellar musical chops applied to it. In addition, Alligator is considerate enough not only to list the musicians in detail for each song, but also to print the lyrics, which range from lighthearted and humorous to poignant and moving.
My only reservation is Ball’s singing: her vocals sometimes lack emotion, especially on songs such as the gospel-tinged “Where Do I Go?” which needs the soaring, wailing passion of a Sista Monica or Aretha Franklin. However, that’s a small quibble; this a consistently good album that confirms Marcia Ball’s piano expertise and good taste. I’ll listen to it a lot.
[This review originally appeared on the BluesWax Web site.]