Award-winning blues and soul vocalist Janiva Magness will celebrate the release of her new Alligator Records CD, STRONGER FOR IT, with a live performance at Uncle Bo’s in Topeka on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (doors open 5:30-show starts at 6:00 -tickets $15.00)
A charismatic artist known for her electrifying live shows, Magness is among the premier blues and R&B singers in the world today; her voice possesses an earthy, raw honesty born from her life experience. Last year, Magness was nominated for four 2011 Blues Music Awards: B.B. King Entertainer of the Year; Album of the Year (The Devil Is An Angel Too); Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year (The Devil Is An Angel Too). She won the coveted 2009 Blues Music Award for B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (she is only the second woman to ever win this award, Koko Taylor being the first) and for contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, an honor she also received in 2006 and 2007. Through her passionate vocals and, for the first time, through her own original songs, Magness, with STRONGER FOR IT, delivers the most moving and intimate album of her career. – Alligator Records Press Release
Janiva Magness discovered her musical calling at an Otis Rush show which she attended as an underage teenager. She formed her first band in 1985, Janiva Magness and the Mojomatics.
She released a series of Indy albums before releasing her major label debut, “What Love Will Do,” on Alligator Records in 2008.
Janiva Magness’ latest CD, Stronger For It, produced by Dave Darling (Brian Setzer, Meredith Brooks, Dan Hicks, John Waite), releases nationwide Tuesday, March 13, and the fact that she chose T-towns premier blues joint Uncle Bo’s as the location to throw a party commemorating its auspicious release just makes me want to whoop and holler!
Stronger For It, Magness’ third Alligator release, is quite possibly one of the most distinctive and creative album of blues and soul standards I’ve heard in quite some time. From beginning to end, each song seems to convey a different emotional aspect of a failed relationship. Almost cathartic in their delivery; songs ranging from anger to denial; from despair to bitterness to a renewed hope; all link together like a musical 12 step program, until the final song when magnificent joy is finally realized. I asked Janiva if the album was planned that way.
I can’t say it was planned that way, but it evolved into that . . . what we did plan on was being very current with what had been happening for me as a woman in the world and that has been reflected in the songs, the stories, the production and the feeling of the whole record.
The disc opens with the first of Janiva’s three original compositions. The smoking There It Is finds Ms. Magness more just than angry at her man; buddy, she’s f’n pissed off! Threatening to stab, poison and at one point, even perform some mechanical repairs on his vehicle.
I’ve had just about as much as any woman can stand
I’ll just watch you drive off with a tear in my eye
And this wrench in my hand.
The darkly defiant I Won’t Cry is up next. Another Janiva original; this sinister slow burner finds her strongly declaring, I get cut, and I might bleed, but I Won’t Cry. Background vocalists, Ernie “Chico” Perez and Alfredo “Freyco” Ballesteros’ ‘whoah, whoahs’ on the final verse, is stark and chilling.
The stronger the bond
The tougher the loss
The pain in my heart
Until it just stops
Once more I’ll just hold on
Until I get strength to fly
I get cut, and I might bleed, but I Won’t Cry
Some fiery electrified Strat riffage introduces us to the Tom Waits classic Make It Rain, courtesy of one Zach Zunis, who pretty much burns it up all the way through this scorcher. This sucker rocks so hard by the time it’s over you’ll be checking the skies, in anticipation of that incoming downpour. Janiva belts out Waits’ acerbic lyrics, making them her own.
The night’s too quiet
Stretched out alone
I need the whip of thunder
And the wind’s dark moan
I’m not Able, I’m just Cain
Open up the heavens
Make it rain!
Janiva’s touring band of Matt Tecu on drums; Gary Davenport on bass; Jim Alfredson on keys; and of course Zach, on guitar, is used all over this release, giving it an improved representation of her incredible live shows, lacking in previous efforts utilizing studio musicians.
The light bluesy feel of Whistling In The Dark, in sharp contrast to the previous burner, quite effectively echo’s the reflective tone of the lyrics. The final original comp on the disc, Janiva seems to be coming to the awareness that even though their relationship is over, there’s still a regretful twinge of love for her man.
When you held me
Oh you know you held me so right now
I felt like nothing could hurt me
In the middle of the night
Well I suppose, if I was telling the truth now
There’ll be no way, for me to get over you
But I’ll keep pretending And Whistling In the Dark
Shelby Lynn Moorer’s I’m Alive rambles along in a kind of post-mod Country feel. The lyrics desparately state,
Oh if I don’t get you back I’ll fall upon a railroad track
And let the steel wheels cut right through my bones
Oh if I don’t get you back I’ll cover up my bloody tracks
With sorrow hopes and hide my dying pride
Oh cause I’m alive
Waitsfield, Vermont native Grace Potter wrote the bitter and despondent tune Ragged Company convincingly covered by Ms. Magness. Over producer Dave Darling’s lone electric rhythm guitar, Janiva cries out,
O Lord I think I’m falling
To my disbelief
I’m cursing like a sailor and lying like a thief
It’s hard to heed the calling from the better side of me
When I’m blaming everybody else and no one’s coming clean
Later she sings,
O Lord it’s lonely, Lord its mighty cold
And I don’t want to live this way
Afraid of growing old
A beautiful heartbreaking tune any way you cut it.
In 1971, Ike and Tina Turner transformed Creedence Clearwater Revival’s lumbering Proud Mary into a high octane horn-driven southern fried stomper that got everyone’s attention (Especially the young boys who happened upon the video featuring Tina and the Ikettes shaking it up on late night TV, and by ‘shaking it up’ I mean shaking their boo-tays in skimpy mini-skirts).
While Janiva’s take on Tina’s soulful You Got What You Wanted doesn’t change it up very much; she probably figures with a song this good, the old adage; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it aptly applies here.
Likewise with Gladys Knight’s smoky ballad I Don’t Want To Do Wrong, and after Jim Alfredson finishes his Hammond B-3 solo your speakers will be smoking too. Once again Chico and Freyco show up to turn in very credible Pips impressions. Every time I listen to this tune, I see in my minds eye, Janiva in a long evening gown with the guys dancing behind her like they were performing on some 1970s TV variety program. Yeah, I really need to get out more.
These two songs are great examples of what I love about Janiva and the song choices for her albums: Instead of doing the ‘hits,’ like Midnight Train to Georgia or Proud Mary (although I would love to hear JM tackle Tina’s River Deep, Mountain High; myohmy!), Ms. Magness prefers to dig a little deeper into an artists catalogue. Janiva’s publicist, Chris Levick, says the songs Janiva chooses to sing has to be lyrically strong and have meaning to her. If they don’t she just won’t sing them.
Matthew Sweet’s Thought I Knew You from his 1991 album Girlfriend gets the Magness makeover next.
I thought I knew you
But I was in for a surprise
I let my love flow
From my heart into your eyes
And how can I describe
The way I slowly lost
My love for you
And all of the time
I thought I knew you
Jim Alfredson’s ominous Wurlitzer piano opens Dirty Water. Once again, Janiva revisits the catalogue of the exceptional songwriting team of Julie and Buddy Miller; this time doing one of Buddy’s tunes.
I don’t need you hanging around my door
Trying to drag me back down to the shore
And I ain’t going to drink your Dirty Water no more
When Janiva goes to church on Paul Thorn’s gospel tinged Things Left Undone, she receives some valuable insight. You see, life is more than just possessions and awards; it’s the people and the relationships that we have or have not cultivated over the years that will be on our mind in the time of dying. The only song on the record sung in the third person; it’s as if Janiva is admonishing herself, and us too, about having the wrong priorities in our life. This is the song that has one my favorite moments on the whole disc. Janiva begins the tune a capella,
When your life is over
And you’re reaching the end
The River of Jordan is around the bend
Will you be counting, all the trophies you won
Or will you look back on the Things Left Undone
When she begins the second verse with . . .
When a stranger came knocking
. . . she goes up in pitch, stretches out “knocking,” and when she begins her descent, her voice breaks a little as the band kicks in. It gives me goose bumps, knocks my socks off, and takes my breath away; all at the same time. Not since the ‘Oh’ in Patsy Cline’s Crazy has a segment of a song made me hit the rewind button so many times. It’s one of those lump-in-your-throat moments that make this stuff called “music” so freakin’ special.
And what’s the next thing you’d absolutely have to do after realizing the error of your wicked ways and the hope that lays ahead for you? How about a good old fashioned water baptism at the river? Yeah! And Janiva takes us there when she takes on Texas songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard’s (yes, the guy who wrote Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother) Whoop And Holler. By the time this rollicking, rambunctious good timer is over, you’ll be off your seat and on your feet, whooping and hollering your face off.
Much like Bob Dylan on his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks, and Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 album Tunnel of Love, Janiva lays out her life and bares her soul in song.
This particular CD went to a new level of vulnerability for me. I suppose in part because I did some writing on this one . . . it’s not necessarily about the loss of one particular relationship or one specific battle . . . but several relationships and several battles actually . . . and coming out the other side of that kind of shit storm . . . I suppose you will have to use another word in print for it, but that is what it was.
The record sounds great and Janiva’s touring band give outstanding performances all around. Stronger For It is an album that begs to be performed straight through. I asked Janiva if this could possibly be on the agenda.
Pretty much – that is the plan! I’ve been rehearsing with the band for a few weeks now and the guys are just killin the material and are excited about playing the new show. We’re glad to be back to work, back on the road, and coming back to Uncle Bo’s. Love that joint!
Sister Janiva has given us a wonderful gift with Stronger For It: A collection of honest, gut-wrenching, soul-baring tunes you’ll want to listen to over and over. Many will immediately identify with the emotional turmoil of a painful separation from a spouse, relative, or even a close friend, within the excellent music. Others will find quiet strength knowing that even though the road ahead may be dark and the path rocky; they, like Janiva, will ultimately be stronger for it when they reach the end.
[March 2012 | Robin Cremer]