Where: Palms Playhouse, 13 Main Street, Winters, California
Tickets: $20; Call 530-795-1825 or visit www.palmsplayhouse.com/ palmtick.html.
When: 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., Saturday, March 1, 2014
Where: Biscuits & Blues, 401 Mason Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets: $22; Call 415-292-2583 or visit www.biscuitsandblues.com.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 4 and March 5, 2014
Where: Dimitriou's Jazz Alley, 6th Avenue and Lenora Street, Seattle, Washington
Tickets: $24.50; Call 206-441-9729 or visit www.jazzalley.com.
For more Janiva Magness gigs, visit her webpage at janivamagness.com.
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overcame the fear
about how she became a blues woman
There are all kinds of us out there performing what we call blues music.
Millions of guitarists, for instance, who have learned some Albert King licks.
And millions of wedding singers who know all the words to "At Last."
But the way of cutting to the bone every night on stage and delivering the true blood of the blues, well, far fewer people can do that.
Sometime around 1971, 14-year-old Janiva Magness, who was living in foster care at the time, hitchhiked across Minneapolis to see Otis Rush in concert.
"Otis played as if his life depended on it," she has explained before. "There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it."
In a recent phone call with me, Magness explained more about that experience.
"This is the whole hindsight thing," Magness said. "We go through things we don't understand, but sometimes get the grace to understand it later. ...
"When I became an adult, I had more capacity for understanding what the fuck was happening to me. At the time, I didn't understand. I was just in it. I felt connected to the music. I felt something other than grief or rage. I felt a certain beauty when I would hear the music, on radio, or especially live, especially seeing the kind of performances people like Otis Rush and B. B. King were giving. They were absolutely on fire! Very, very real."
"What a huge gift, what a glorious experience," she said. "Given what life had been so far, which wasn't lovely. I wasn't a happy young woman. I was deeply depressed, very sad. And I held everything in."
Well, lots of artistic people had tough childhoods, which have driven the careers of many significant musicians, writers, comedians, artists.
But Magness comes pretty close to setting a record. Her mother committed suicide when Magness was 13. Her father killed himself when Magness was 16.
"It was awful, a living nightmare," she said. "Deeply disturbing ... it has completely shaped my path, much of which was very crooked and very hard.
"The good news is that crooked and difficult part of the journey doesn't define me anymore. And part of the reason why that is, is the music."
During those tough teenage years, Magness bounced from foster home to foster home. At 17, she gave birth to a daughter she only knew for four months, before giving the baby up for adoption. (They have since, modestly, reconnected; and now one of Magness' pet causes, for which she raises funds, is foster care.)
It took a few years for the teenage Janiva (JAN-eh-vah) to get up on a stage and sing.
"Now I understand that it was a pivotal spiritual experience," Magness told me, "being struck by music, being taken hostage by this music. The obsession of a child with a radio turned into the obsession of a young girl with radio and records, listening to them over and over ... which turned into an obsession with live music, needing to experience it ... which turned into this ache, literally an ache, a physical manifestation, that I just wanted to sing.
"It was very disturbing problem for me. I couldn't make it go away. I couldn't quiet it. But I didn't have the self-confidence to try. So I held it in, held it in, till I couldn't hold it in anymore. I was imploding. I was going to die. But I thought, 'You never tried! What an asshole you are, what a jerk, what you haven't even tried! Just go, just try for something!'
"The ache overcame all the rest of the 'You fuck, you can't do this' self-loathing anxiety and self-hatred. The ache overcame all of that.
"So I auditioned, got the gig."
Her first job was with a 16-piece brass band, the John Stafford Band.
"Three female singers and an Elvis impersonator," she said. "We did everything. Current stuff, funky music, Andrews Sisters. I still remember all the words to "Bei Mir Bist Du Shein."
Since then, her crooked and difficult path has kind of straightened out, or at least as straight as the blues highway gets, and she is enjoying a good career as a blues singer who has earned the respect of other blues people and blues fans. The Blues Foundation, for instance, in 2009 gave her the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award she was only the second woman, after Koko Taylor, to be so honored. She's won plenty of other awards as well, has nine albums out, with a tenth in the works, and she performs at 160 to 185 shows a year.
On stage, she is a stompin', shoutin' blues mama when the song calls for it, or a powerful warm presence, crooning a ballad. She's sexy as hell and shows a lot of leg. She's fun. She's a blues woman.
"I feel like it's an insane blessing that my life is as good as it is now," she said, "and that I am able to do what I love. I love it so much! It's just the truth of the matter.
"If I were, for some reason to die, today, tomorrow, it really would have been enough. That I've been given all that I've been given ... the experience .. all the darkness, loss, rage, forgiveness, love. It's been nuts! I feel really fucking lucky. Really. Very lucky."