Reneé Austin brought her powerful voice, impressive range, and high-energy enthusiasm to this picturesque outdoor venue and a new audience on this steamy summer night. In keeping with the weather, Reneé started things out smoking in a slow, sultry voice as she sang about her Texas roots on her original, "Little Bit of Texas" (from her CD, Dancing with Mr. Blue). Reneé impressed the crowd with her energy, spirit, and a vocal range that she can bring down low and greasy or take high and piercing with impressively long held notes. She did a good job of mixing selections from her previous CD, well-chosen covers, and a good sampling of new songs that will be on her new CD. "Snake" is an interesting new song that seems to be still evolving. An up tempo R&B song with attitude and heavy metal roots, it basically tells the story of a man who is so low he's a snake.
Despite getting a bit of a late start, and not having her regular horn players, Reneé quickly energized the crowd and got them up cheering and dancing on the small patio in front of the outdoor stage. Her torchy new song, "Fool Moon" had the crowd impressed with her singing, the band's rich, subtle, playing, and the passion she brings to her shows. Reneé had the crowd on their feet yelling for more at the end of her set. So she came out and did a brief encore, once again to enthusiastic response. You could honestly say that Reneé made a whole new group of Wisconsin fans with her spirited performance. If there is a recording company out there willing to look for sheer talent, enthusiasm, and emotional impact instead of the next 16 year old phenomenon, it would do well to sign Reneé to a contract.
The fans were not the only ones who were impressed. Marcia Ball, who normally starts out right away at her keyboard, instead sang two songs standing up at the microphone before getting behind her keyboard. This is something Marcia does not do that often, and to the best of my knowledge, only when she follows someone who had a really hot performance before her. The recent WC Handy award winner, for blues album of the year, Presumed Innocent, got things moving early on with "Red Beans Cooking." Marcia played a great boogie woogie piano while pumping her leg to the rhythm, singing in her clear, expressive voice with a Texas twang. This original had the crowd up dancing and jumping. Marcia did a good job during her nearly 2 hour set of changing paces, mixing smoky, blues grinders like "Just Kiss Me Baby" and "It's Alright Baby" with the rocking blues of "Hey Carry On" and "Down Route 9." Marcia and her solid backing band changed up the atmosphere and emotions well in their performance.
Two songs that really stood out because of their strong emotional appeal were the slow, soulful blues on "St. Gabriel" and the mid-tempo blues of "I'm Coming Down With the Blues." St. Gabriel a sad ballad about a tough life lived along the Mississippi delivered as a slow blues grinder. Here Marcia's rich, ringing piano chords, smoking vocals, lead guitarist Pat Boyack's slow, eerie, and piercing guitar licks followed by quick bursts of fills and the dirty tones of Brad Andrews on sax all reinforced the heavy emotion of the song's lyrics. The reflective blues of "I'm Coming Down with the Blues" demonstrated again Marcia's panache at the piano as she sang. Sax man Andrews did an excellent job of melding his low, powerful sax riffs with Marcia's piano without outshining the boss.
While Marcia has turned out some impressive music on CD's, here live performances is where she really shines. She feeds off the crowd's energy and always gives fans more than their money's worth. After the show she said she feels she is much more of a live performer than a studio one. With all her well-dressed style and long-legged grace on stage, Marcia remains a performer who can be a little bawdy, a little fiesty, and retains her down home charm under pressure. Being on the banks of the Mississippi on a humid night, she played many songs with a river or New Orleans area theme. She and her band were constantly under the attack of flying insects. At one point she quipped "Boy, this is great, I haven't had a bug in the eye or mouth for a minute and a half!." And she mentioned that she and the band "Need to be doused." Sensing the crowds enthusiasm, she said "We were going to take a break here, but since we have to quit by 11:00 we'll just keep on playing if it's OK with you." The crowd roared their approval.
I would highly recommend a road trip to the Trempeleau Hotel for one of their outdoor blues show. The site on the banks of the Mississippi features great scenery, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the whole atmosphere is laid back and welcoming. The outdoor performance area has ample shade, refreshment stands and bars, picnic tables, a dance area, and a grassy expanse to plop your lawn chair. The drive down from the Twin Cities along the river is scenic and relaxing. And there is ample camping space within walking distance. But if you go, take your bug spray and lawn chair.
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