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Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson and Del Ray at the Musical Instrument Museum

Patricia Myers By

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Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson and Del Ray
Musical Instrument Museum
"Saluting the Pioneers of Women Who Rock"
Phoenix, Arizona
October 16, 2013

Four women musicians performed a joyous tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie, black pioneers in gospel and early blues styles that became the roots of rock 'n' roll. The 22-song concert format was a soul-satisfying mix of gospel, blues, boogie-woogie and swing.

"Saluting the Pioneers" was the theme of this first of five concerts related to a new museum exhibit, "Women Who Rock." The content and concept for the concert was credited to Maria Muldaur, who enlisted Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson and Del Ray to join her to explore a musical mixture from 1930s to the present, enhanced by changing big-screen photos of the two pioneers.

Although many of the songs may have been unfamiliar to most listeners, each was entertaining and often amazing. Muldaur had sly fun with the double-entendre lyrics of Minnie's "Won't You Be My Chauffeur," and romped through "Black Rat Swing" and "That's All."

Ball combined her saucy vocal style and rollicking keyboard sound on "Keep Your Big Mouth Closed" and "I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa," then laid down phenomenal boogie-woogie moves on "Shout the Boogie."

The powerhouse voice of Nelson appeared to take the audience by surprise, since earlier in the show she only had harmonized on trio pieces. The incredible force of her style was revealed when she delivered the Koko Taylor hit "Whatever I Am You Made Me," then "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'" and a stunning rendition of "I Will Be Free Some Day."

Another audience surprise may have been Ray, a Seattle-based blues and jazz singer-guitarist, who garnered early appreciative applause from the audience of 300. She had launched the evening with a solo rendition of the life-story-song she wrote about Minnie. To start the second set, she talked about gospel singer Tharpe, an innovative guitarist credited with inventing both the "windmill" style of guitar-playing (long predating The Who's Pete Townshend) and the duck-walk adopted by Chuck Berry (ditto). She became gospel music's first crossover artist and its first great recording star, later being referred to as "the original soul sister," cited as an early influence on Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

When Muldaur, Ball and Nelson combined to harmonize, Ray propelled the energy with extraordinary guitar riffs on the gospel charts "Up Above My Head," "Didn't It Rain" and "The Lonesome Road." The most apt representation of the "Women Who Rock" theme had to be "Shout, Sister, Shout." And that's exactly what they did all evening long, in exuberant melodic style.

Not incidentally, this captivating show was staged by four vibrant "women of a certain age": Muldaur is 70, Nelson is 68, Ball is 64 and Ray is 53. The rhythm section was Ball's touring ensemble of Chris Burns on electronic keyboard, baby grand and B3 organ, guitarist-vocalist Mike Schermer, tenor saxophonist Thad Scott and drummer-vocalist Damien Llanes, ably abetted by Phoenix-based electric bassist Al Ortiz (in place of Don Bennett).

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