Etta James once sang two words that can send a thrill up your spine, “At last.” Last night was one of those “at last” moments for me as multi-time Blues Music Award-winning artist Janiva Magness rolled into Richmond at the Tin Pan, and for approximately 90 minutes held the audience spellbound with her performance.
I have been a fan of her work for several years and have often played her music on the radio show I co-host with Henry Cook, Time For The Blues. In fact, it was Cook who introduced me to Magness’ music when he brought one of her earlier CDs in to share with our audience.
Since that time nine years ago, we have featured every one of her releases and always have requests from listeners for more. Last night, a lot of those listeners, and many other fans who have traveled a good distance to share the evening were in attendance and hung on every note.
Up first was the Janiva Magness Band, the four men who back her up throughout the evening. These artists include Vince Foster Jr. (aka “Hawk” for his ability to catch everything that’s going on) on drums, Gary Davenport on bass, and Zach Zunis and Brophy Dale on guitars. They ripped through a couple of instrumentals to start the evening, and damn, they are solid and the crowd was already enjoying their performance.
After they warmed up the crowd, they brought it to a boiling point by introducing the one and only Janiva herself, who made her way through the enthusiastic crowd, taking the stage in a red fringed jacket over a black dress and launching into the evening’s performance.
She opened with the funky blues number, The Devil Is An Angel Too, and established a groove that she could come back to throughout the night. After that, she paused for a moment before segueing into the slow, powerful song, I Won’t Bleed.
One thing you quickly realize about Magness, many of her songs have a deep spiritual connection with her. Sometimes you can tell a singer who sings a great song, but doesn’t put her soul into it, but with Magness, you don’t get that feeling because she brings her soul out and puts it into every single phrase.
Stopping the song just before the final line, she asks the audience if they would like her to finish, or tell them the story behind it. Overwhelmingly we call for the story and are not disappointed as she reveals some of the pain that has been a part of her life.
Magness uses that pain as a way to connect with her audience. Her pain is our pain, and even when we experience different circumstances, her ability to put that into a song touches us and we grow closer as a result.
Then she finished the song. By the way, it was only her second song in the night and already dancers were up having a good time. Trust me when I say this is rare for many Richmond audiences.
From there she launched into Walking In The Sun and her beautiful low throaty voice was working its way into all of our hearts.
The stories came more rapidly after that. While fanning herself with a Chinese fan (yes the stage gets mighty hot) she talks a little about her last full album, Love Wins Again, for which she was nominated for a Grammy Award, and how that title – that song – is needed now more than ever. Whatever your politics, that’s a sentiment we all need right now.
After that came a song she dedicated to her husband, the man many of us have nicknamed “Lucky,” When You Hold Me. It’s a beautiful number and its slow smoldering passion could ignite many fires.
Another story, this time about fear and how it affects her. The song, Doorway, was written by her producer Dave Darling, and for the first time in the evening the crowd was so moved that they couldn’t respond immediately after the song ended. It took a few seconds for the feeling to ebb some before we could burst into a giant round of applause. It’s a powerful song and one that is sure to touch you with its message.
Shifting gears to her latest release, Blue Again, a six-song EP, she got back to the music like she performed when she first started out, and the music that inspired her when she was younger.
First up for this portion of the show was Bo Diddley’s I Can Tell. As you would expect from a Bo Diddley number, it was a solid rocker and heavy on the rhythm. After that was Buck, a song recorded by Nina Simone, but written by her husband. When you listen to the lyrics which are all about what a great man she has, it’s pretty evident that it was written by a man talking about himself.
Then she moved into a great Etta James/Harvey Fuqua number, If I Can’t Have You. Originally a B-side and a duet, Magness turned it into a show stopping solo and then moved into one of my favorite Al Kooper songs, I Love You More Than You Will Ever Know. It’s a gorgeous number and was one of many that gave her band a great chance to shine. The song has been covered by a number of artists, but few have ever done it as well as Magness did live.
She followed up with Long As I Can See The Light, and even though the staff was quietly handing out the checks for the evening, our eyes were riveted to the stage. She told one more story about running away as a child and while sitting on the curb in front of her house, wondering who would come for her.
Sometimes questions like that take a long time for an answer to appear. And one day, while sitting in her living room with a group of friends, those answers began to reveal themselves to her and the song, Who Will Come For Me emerged. It was a beautiful moment and she moved to her final song of the night, I Can’t Let You Go.
I don’t know if I can completely answer the question of who will come for her, but I know a couple of hundred people who will come to see her the next time she is anywhere near the area. And if Janiva Magness couldn’t let us go, we’ll return the favor and never let her go.
All in all, it was a great night by an amazing performer in an intimate venue that puts everyone close to the stage. After the show, she took her time with every single person who wanted to stop and chat – and most of us wanted to do that.
Don’t miss Janiva Magness if she comes anywhere near you. Find out by dropping by her website, https://janivamagness.com/, and be sure to tell her The Professor sent you.
(All photos by Anita Schlank. Used by permission.)