Mark Plummer in Melody Maker (1972-ish)
Dave Ball hunches over the loaned acoustic guitar and begins to play counter-lines to Big Maceo's piano, complementing Tampa Red's slide guitar perfectly. The track comes to an end, he laughs, plays a swift 1ine and picks up on the next cut. "It's in the same key," he says again. " Good old C, it's the easiest to play blues piano in. Maybe he didn't know any other."
Recently Ball left Procol Harum to get back into his first love, blues music. Procol gave him a discipline that a year ago his playing was missing, but always even within the confines of Gary Brooker's music his soaring guitar playing was searching for ways of expressing itself in the Chicago tradition.
You can see that on Procol's last album cut, Live in Edmonton with orchestra and choir. While his guitar playing is within the concept of Procol Harum's music, it steps out and hits little runs that are completely in vain [sic]with electric Chicago blues. Desperate metallic runs that add tension and aggression over the disciplined meticulous Brooker arrangements.
Listening back over that album it was obvious that Ball would not be content to play other people's music, where his chance for expressing himself was limited, for ever.
In the States, where Procol work most of the time, Ball would play with the band and rush off after each show to find somewhere to jam. Checking out little blues clubs, where his white face was completely out of place until he got the chance to play guitar.
It was in those circumstances, during a couple of days off in Los Angeles on their last American tour, that Ball ran into John Baldry and jammed with him. It was after that blow that he more or less decided to leave Procol and look for a blues based band to play with.
"I left Procol because I was bored with it. Simple as that. I think it was a good job for me at the time, because I needed something like that to pull my playing back into a recognisable form. But towards the end. I wanted to play the stuff I had been playing before because it holds more interest for me – although I don't know about audiences.
"With Procol it was so – when I say regimented I don't mean they wouldn't let you put any ideas into it, because I did – but there are only so many ideas I could put into that style. There was a frustration thing building up, and it was noticeable.
"There weren't any personality clashes, not really. It was simply that I have a need to express myself, that sounds hackneyed, but that's it in a nutshell. You have to entertain that, or you end up with too many frustrations. That was what was happening while we were making the new album, it was sounding good – lush and topical – but I just had to break out in the end. It was a mutual thing, everyone knew something was wrong. You know that when you work with a group of people, especially when you spend a lot of time away together, everybody picks up on your moods very easily."
In financial terms Ball left Procol at precisely the wrong time. For the first time since A Whiter Shade of Pale was a top ten hit, Procol are riding high and after umpteen tours of the States they have boosted themselves into one of the top bands playing there.
"You don't really think of things like that," said Ball. "Just now there's a lot of money to be made from the band. I like money, I think I have an ability to make money. I enjoy to an extent knowing that I am scoring a lot of money, that's fine, but I always get bored with it after a while with one particular venture. Then I get into something else, if that succeeds that's it, there's no more interest in it for me. I expect I'll go on like this for the rest of my life, you know selling deck chairs when I'm sixty."
Ball, who a while back led what was reputed to be one of the loudest hands in Britain, Birmingham-based Big Bertha with drummer Cozy Powell – is one of the few British rock and roll gypsys [sic] moving in and out of projects.
In terms of progression joining Baldry has been seen as a retrogressive step for Ball by a number of people, myself included, when his powerful and unique guitar style is just ripe for him to head his own band.
But Dave believes in Baldry, and feels that a lot of the blues singer's troubles have been down to the people around him and the fact that he hasn't headed a permanent band for a long time. Little things, like the recent Queen Elizabeth Hall date which was a shambles, should never have happened and before they start gigging again everything has to be perfect.
"It could be true that I put bands second to myself, but that's not exactly how I feel. From the business point of view it is very important to try and get the best you can. But you can't let that influence your decisions. The day I left Procol I went to the States to check out another gig that had been offered me with a hand that would have made my name immediately, but it is the music I'm interested in. I left after a week, just upped and a split.
"I've been listening to Baldry for some years now, I liked the idea of the line-up he wants and of working with him. When I jammed with him in a little club in LA we just rocked and rolled. It was great to feel a communication between him and his audience."
Before the Baldry gig came up there were times when Dave was sorely tempted to just leave Procol and split for Chicago, the town where he spends as much time as possible. Chicago, and New Orleans to a lesser degree, held a tight grip on him, and without being flash he found it easy to get accepted as blues guitarist in Chicago.
"I was very tempted when I was with Procol to just leave for Chicago. I'd done some session work there and could have got more and a gig in a blues club easily. I was playing, jamming around in some terrible places where you're really risking your life when you go in them, but as soon as you're honking a way on guitar you're all right.
"After each tour with Procol I'd zoom off to Chicago for my holidays, which is something people can't believe. I was staying in Chicago one time, it's funny how you seem to enjoy feeling bad there, you know 'de blues mahn,' and I was waking up in the middle of the night and having to play. I was OK, no problems and a ticket back home, but you just get this feeling of utter desperation. I'd just sit in a chair by the window plucking away on the guitar. I thought looking out the window, 'Fuck, but those people really know where it's at.'
"Chicago was the catalyst for the blues players who came out of Florida, New Orleans and down South where it all started. It was like going from country to city and picking up on the electricity and excitement of the big city life. But it's got too much of a cultural thing now. Any cat who is black can say he's a blues musician, and that seems to be fair enough.
"It's funny, because what they used to sing about in the blues has changed, maybe there's more oppression for the blacks, but there's the same for whites too. An instance being that I feel black with desperation in Chicago, it's a feeling you can't describe. You can't sleep, but everything is all right."