Janiva convention

Chico turns out for blues singer’s first local gig

KEEPIN’ IT HOT <br>With guitarist Zack Zunis backing her up with funky licks, blues queen Janiva Magness takes command of the Big Room stage.

With guitarist Zack Zunis backing her up with funky licks, blues queen Janiva Magness takes command of the Big Room stage.

Photo by matt siracusa

Janiva Magness Band at the Sierra Nevada Big Room
Sunday, March 15

When Big Room emcee Bob Littell asked for a show of hands this past Sunday night as to who had heard Detroit-turned-L.A. blues singer Janiva Magness before, not a single hand went up.

“I will take that as a supreme vote of confidence,” he replied.

Magness, after all, came highly recommended. She’s nominated for four Blues Foundation awards this year: B. B. King Entertainer of the Year, Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, for her latest release, What Love Will Do.

Magness hit the stage two songs into the show, after her bandmates—guitarist Zack Zunis, Benny Yee on stacked Hammond/Korg keys, electric bassist Gary Davenport and drummer Tom Fillman (who has recorded with Southern blues queen Marcia Ball, among others)—established themselves as a supremely able back-up band. Zunis and Yee took turns showing off their admirable funky-groove chops. Zunis’ slick trick of sustaining one emotion-tugging chord into near silence hinted at his ability to take it to the next level.

But, once Magness—outfitted in black high heels, black fishnets and a black, spaghetti-strapped dress that fit her curvy body like a sausage casing—took the microphone, it was clearly her show.

Opening with “Sometimes You Got to Gamble,” from What Love Will Do, Magness took control of the stage, unafraid to pick up the mic stand and move it about as she desired, and able to control her band with a flick of her hand or toss of her curly brown hair.

At several points in the evening, Magness literally kicked her way back into a song after a solo, high-stepping one of her long legs down onto the stage floor before beginning to belt out her next round of lyrics.

Magness’s tuneful voice possesses the emotional catch one wants in a convincing blues singer, and at certain times a raspy, high-pitched squeal somewhere between Lydia Pense and Janis Joplin.

About halfway through the almost two-hour show, Magness showed her propensity for mid-set conversation when she launched into a lengthy, chatty speech about her age (she’s a proud 52 years old); her younger husband, songwriter Jeff Turmes; and the importance of both persistence and grace in achieving one’s life goals. Someone finally yelled out, “Music!” and Magness launched into the Turmes-penned “You Sound Pretty Good” (also from What Love Will Do), a song that takes a swipe at the music business (“You sound pretty good, but you just won’t sell …”).

Dancers packed the floor most of the night except for the very occasional slow-blues belly-rubber, when there might have been only two inspired couples out on the floor feeling romantic.

Shortly after descending from atop a big speaker in front of the stage onto which she had climbed for the second time to sing over the heads of the audience, Magness launched into another round of banter, with her band vamping behind her—about her personal politics and her trip to perform for troops in Iraq and Kuwait, which she described as “a respite for two hours to remember their heart.”

“I’m as hard left [politically] as you wanna know,” said Magness. “But I understand my job. … My job is human connection. The gift is the music. If I can take you on a journey with a song and make you forget about your worries … I know I’m doin’ my job.”

Magness removed her shoes before performing her impressive encore closer—a sans-band, a capella version of Fontella Bass’s “The Soul of a Man.”