Red-hot blues singer Janiva Magness brought her acclaimed show to Hillsborough’s tiny Blue Bayou Club and treated 100 or so lucky patrons to a performance that was as sultry as the humid southern weather. Many fans were surprised to arrive at the club and find the show sold out in advance, which is a testament to Magness’ recent success and befitting of her support from legends like B.B. King. The living legend recently bestowed his “Entertainer of the Year” award upon Magness, a fact mentioned by her guitarist no less than 3 times throughout the evening.
Blue Bayou is a musical outpost nestled in a quaint downtown area, directly across from a church and a popular restaurant. Surrounded by antique shops and art galleries, it’s an unlikely spot to have become the area’s home of the blues, but it has done just that. The club’s proximity to Chapel Hill and Durham make it a convenient spot for are music lovers to dance the night away and partake of the above-average selection of beer and wine, which is more reasonably priced in comparison to many bars in the area.
The temperature inside the club was appropriately stifling for a Friday night blues show, and it rose steadily as Magness’ outstanding band offered a funky instrumental prelude to the first set. Tight, inspired groove jazz got the sweat flowing from the crowd, which was a mix of crunchy co-op customers, middle-aged after dinner revelers, drunken dancers, and enthusiastic blues devotees.
Hailing from “L.A. via Detroit,” Magness sings the blues with little regional inflection but plenty of authenticity. She’s not some fastidiously marketed pretender who left home and got a good band and a record deal in L.A. Magness has seen the hard times, lived them, and emerged from the fray with an appreciation for life and an unearthly ability to channel her experiences into music. Her voice materializes from the molten lava of the earth and resonates with stage-shaking command when the band is cranking through uptempo numbers, and she can make an audience’s collective spine tingle with her moody, sultry side.
Magness took the stage with much fanfare from the band and immediately tore through one of her signature tunes, the classic “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” which served as a heart-pumping prelude to an evening of traditional blues and songs from her critically lauded What Love Will Do album The band proved exceptional in that they managed to stand out even as Magness enraptured the audience with her relentlessly emotive, soul-drenched singing and beguiling stage presence. While she regaled the crowd with tales of music-industry idiocy, growing older but marrying a younger man, and, of course, the ins and outs of love, the quartet alternately slinked and sizzled with gut-wrenching passion. During instrumental breakdowns and solos, Magness matched their rhythmic bombast with plenty of vocal encouragement, foot stomps, and joyful expressions
A highlight of the evening was her introduction and performance of “You Sound Pretty Good,” a rollicking number that details some of the criticisms she’s heard over the years. “You sound pretty good, but you just don’t sell,” reads one of the lyrics, which Magness must chuckle at each time she signs another CD sold at setbreak. Therein lies the key to Magness’ status as the current queen of mainstream blues in America. People who worship true musicianship know a good thing when they hear it, and whether or not she sells out large venues or blows through boxes of merchandise, Magness will always have an audience because of her unpretentious nature and undeniable talent.
VIDEO: “Wang Dang Doodle” at Monterey Blues Fest