LOCAL LIVE! In Denver, About Denver, Musically Denver!!!!
Janiva Magness, Denver Blues and Brews Fest, July 10, 2010
Janiva Magness is sassy. She’s so sassy, about a third of the way through her headlining set at the Denver Blues and Brews Festival, a black bra came flying out of the crowd onto the stage. Unsolicited. That’s the kind of energy and enthusiasm she generates. She’s a blues veteran and she brings her experience to the stage to create a good time atmosphere or, at times, the kind of catharsis that only the blues in the hands of a true professional can evoke.
Besides plain, old sex, she addressed many of the other classic blues issues: failed romances, lyin’ and cheatin’, things going right, things going wrong and The Devil. She delivered these tales with her authoritative, husky alto voice. She’s been a blues singer for several decades and her experience and maturity came through in her stage presence and delivery. On stage, she was in charge and she came to tell some stories. And sing some blues.
Magness, though still far from a household name, has been gaining recognition in recent years. In 2009, she won the B. B. King Entertainer of the Year Award. She’s only the second woman to ever win that award, the other being KoKo Taylor. Last year she also won the award for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, an award she also won in 2006 and 2007.
I had heard a number of her CDs and thought she could be Grace Potter’s mom because of a similar style, attitude and choice of material. So it was pretty funny when the PA played about half of Potter’s Nothing But the Water CD just before she came on stage. She’s recorded about seven albums, most for small labels, but in 2008 released a disc on the venerable Alligator label, What Love Will Do. The follow up, The Devil is an Angel Too, also on Alligator was released about three months ago. Alligator is famous for a hard rockin’ blues sound. Magness bucks that trend with a style that has more of an R&B sound than many Alligator artists. She does some upbeat tunes, but I get the feeling she likes the slow burning tunes with a touch of mystery about them the best. The title song from her latest CD is a case in point. Appropriate to its name, it has an air of evil and sounds like it crawled out of a Louisiana swamp.
Her concert Saturday night featured almost all the songs from her current album. In fact the only tune in the set list that was not on the new album was the title tune from her prior CD. That’s no criticism. After all, it’s not like she has a string of hits everybody knows and everybody wants to hear. The new material is strong and varied and showcased her earthy style and vocal and emotional range. Her band was everything a backing blues band needed to be; biting guitar, churning keyboards, solid rhythm and harmony vocals to back hers. Besides creating the aforementioned swamp effects, they channeled Bo Diddley on “Your Love Made a U Turn,” got soulful on “Save Me” and raved on “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love.”
During the last 15 minutes or so of the show, she introduced the band, then talked about herself and her experience in foster homes. She’s an alum of foster care and now serves as a spokesperson for the system. She explained that her very existence is due to two things: people in the foster care system looking out for her when she was unable to do so herself, and the blues. She never drew a direct line between what was obviously a difficult childhood and her deep connection with the blues, but you have to wonder…
Near the end of her set, she also talked about her age. She confessed that she’s 53. She held her arms out to show her dangling triceps, what some people refer to (usually with some measure of horror) as “lunch lady arms.” As far as I could tell, she didn’t use those parts of her body to sing the blues. She was serving some sustenance, but it wasn’t a school lunch.
Two opening instrumentals
I’m Feelin’ Good
That's What Love Will Make You Do
I Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
The Devil is an Angel Too
Walkin’ in the Sun
Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love
I Want to do Everything For You
Your Love Made a U Turn
End of Our Road
Band intro and foster care pitch
Keys Jim Alfredson
Drums Matt Techie
Guitar Zach Zunis
Bass Gary Davenport