Following Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan's folk-blues set Saturday, officials at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center asked the handful of patrons in attendance to sign letters urging the City Council not to close the financially strapped center. If the level of culture and art--and sheer entertainment--presented there somehow were to be considered in deciding the center's fate, they might also pass along a tape of Ball and Sultan's performance.
For 19 songs spanning nearly two hours, the Santa Barbara duo exchanged licks on the guitar and harmonica, weaving a selection of blues and rag numbers that romped, rollicked and tickled.
Drawing upon traditional songs, ragtime favorites and their own brand of latter-day bar blues numbers, Ball and Sultan--both of whom study and teach music as well as play it--proved they are remarkably skilled technical musicians. Sultan throughout the show skipped merrily and fluidly from finger-picking to slide to blues chords and around again. And Ball, along with his throaty vocals and two fine solo guitar ventures, played the harmonica with healthy measures of soul, fury and flair.
Watching and listening to the pair perform--and pause while Sultan reverently described his vintage 1936 guitar and Ball chose from a boxful of harmonicas--was like sitting in at a musicians' workshop. Except that this was much more fun.
Whether their tone traversed to bouncy rag or slow, steady blues, Ball and Sultan remained energized and playful. Their jocular demeanor, symbolized by Ball's ever-present, dimpled smile spread broadly beneath a walruslike mustache, often was underscored by their lyrics.
"You've got a head like a brick and a mouth like a radio," Ball sang in "All Talk and No Action." "If silence is golden, you must be broke. . . ."
Another crowd-pleasing song by the pair is entitled, "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"
Though they consistently applauded politely and warmly--and genuinely, it appeared--the audience of barely 50 seemed strangely subdued in comparison with what was happening on stage most of the time. Hall and Sultan often kicked up a ruckus worthy of a Chicago blues bar, an achievement which the crowd seemed to appreciate but never managed to reciprocate.
Among the few respites from frivolity, Hall and Sultan each took the stage alone to play instrumental numbers showcasing their respective command of the guitar.
After more than a decade of acclaim on the folk-blues circuit, the duo has long since escaped being booked into the area's tiny, dingy dives, as Sultan noted during the show. Yet even in the more respectable Anaheim Cultural Arts Center it was apparent that Ball and Sultan outclassed their setting, with its aging stage flanked by purple velvet curtains.
But then, lack of funding can do that to a place.