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Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson
@ The Minnesota Zoo, July 2, 1998

Marcia Ball
Apple Valley Zoo, 7/2/98
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling. All rights reserved
How did these three powerhouse singers get together in the first place? They just happened to have solo albums released around the same time a few years ago on the Rounder label, when they found themselves promoting their albums at the same in-store CD signing in New Orleans. They sang an impromptu set together and discovered that it worked, they liked the sound. Irma Thomas said, "things just clicked and we had a ball." Here were three very strong soloists with distinct musical styles and individual careers who found that not only did they have a mutual admiration for each other's music but that they sounded good together. Both Nelson and Ball had immersed themselves in the music of Irma Thomas when they were first honing their craft back in the 60's and 70's. There was a certain chemistry right from the start that led to the genesis of their 1998 Rounder CD "Sing It!" and the resulting tour featuring all three on the same show.

According to Tracy Nelson, "Once the project got started it really gathered momentum. We all brought in songs that we liked by our favorite writers. We wouldn't choose a song unless it seemed fresh. We'd discuss what key would work best, who would do which part when, who would sing lead, (and) how and where the harmonies would come it." The result was one of the better releases in 1998. The "Sing It!" album and this current tour "might never have happened," reflected Irma Thomas, "if Brad Paul (of Rounder) hadn't put us on that show together. "And it just goes to show that when accidents do happen, the results CAN be good."

Irma Thomas
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling. All rights reserved
This show at the Minnesota Zoo started off with all three divas singing a couple of songs from their new CD. Then Marcia Ball sang a slower Gary Nicholson ballad "He's Mine" while she played some hot keyboards. The reset of the show featured the ladies trading lead solos, with duets and three part harmonies. They were backed by a very good and entertaining group of New Orleans musicians with a three-piece horn section. These guys on the horns were real cut-ups. Not only would they deliver up some blistering solos in support of the ladies singing but they had some very funky dance steps going on and were breaking up the audience and the rest of the musicians with their expressions and amusing antics. Tracy said they could write a book about the things that have been going on during this tour. Irma said, "if you were a fly on the wall, boy what you would hear."

So how was the show? Well, a friend said he wished they would have each done a set by themselves before coming together as a group at the end. I'm sure that would have been great but this was billed as a group and they were promoting their new CD "Sing It!" so I was very pleased with the results. This was a rhythm 'n blues summit featuring some supremely confident singing, with slinky syncopation, rich harmonies, swaggering shuffles and gut-wrenching power. They mixed it up too with blues, R&B, funk, southern soul and sultry New Orleans music. The atmosphere on stage was relaxed and loose but the performance was astonishing.

Irma Thomas started her hit song "It's Raining" with a little laugh because we had a continual drizzle for the entire show that turned into a steady down pour at the end. Marcia Ball introduced the Gary Nicholson/Steve Cropper song "Love Maker" to all the housewives in the audience with the comments, "there is something more important than something hot on the stove as long as there's something hot in the kitchen." This elicited a big chuckle out of the ladies in the audience.

Tracy Nelson
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling. All rights reserved
Tracy Nelson almost stole the show at one point with some astonishingly powerful vocals on the song "In Tears." She really can belt out a tune with dynamic power and clarity. Both Thomas and Ball offered some excellent backing vocals. That must have been something, to have Irma Thomas as your back up singer.

Irma Thomas has that laid back, natural sounding, New Orleans soul sound that takes you on a lazy ride down a winding river in the middle of summer. Marcia Ball has a bluesy, pop quality to her voice with a smidgen of the country music she came up with. Then as she sits demurely at the keyboard with her legs crossed and one foot tapping in time to her New Orleans-style rhythms she literally blows the place apart with her raucous, joyful, stride and boogie-woogie piano playing.

And when Tracy and Irma traded leads on "You Don't Know Nothin' About Love," you easily forgot who was the teacher and who was the student. They were so great together.

I asked Irma how she got started singing and she said, "I got fired from singing on the job. I was a waitress and he fired me because I wasn't waiting on tables I was on stage singing." New Orleans legend Tommy Ridgley happened to be leading the house band at the Pimlico club in 1958 when he asked the 17-year-old waitress to join him on stage for a song and helped launch the career of one of New Orleans' première soul singers. When Thomas is really cooking, she positively smolders with sheer sensuality.

Tracy Nelson grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and was part of the folk scene there and in the Twin Cities back in the early '60's. She recalled playing in coffeehouses with Koerner, Ray and Glover. She said, "Those guys were so great, the early KR&G were such monsters and I was so in awe of them." She moved to San Francisco in '65 and formed the band Mother Earth in '67. She said she left in '69 after four years, it was "way to wacky out there."

Listen to the album "Sing It!" and you will have a pretty good idea of just how good this show was.

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Copyright © 1998 by Ray M. Stiles
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.