GRIT AND WISDOM: In the classic and sometimes over-mythologized definition of the blues, the music is more than just a three-chord-based howl of joy and pain. It’s an expressive vehicle for transcendence over worlds of hurt, personal, racial, and otherwise. By that measure, the powerfully fine singer Janiva Magness could be considered a blues poster woman. She endured a rough childhood in Detroit, with parents succumbing to suicide; a series of foster homes; and giving up her own child to adoption at age 17. From adolescence on, the blues was her obsession and ticket to surviving and thriving, as she worked her way slowly into a life as a singer of uncommon grit and wisdom.

Janiva Magness
Courtesy Photo

Fast forward to 2010, and Magness is riding rightfully high, having recently released her ninth and possibly greatest album, The Devil Is an Angel Too (Alligator). Although a longtime Los Angeleno, Magness makes her long-awaited official Santa Barbara debut Friday, July 30, at Warren Hall, hosted by the almighty Santa Barbara Blues Society. Her arrival in this hallowed venue, a reliable pressure cooker of blues worth hearing, comes at a ripe, triumphal moment in her life and career. Now 53, Magness has found herself in a later-blooming high style, toasted around the world, lavished with Blues Foundation awards, and appearing on NPR. She is reaching a growing audience both in the blues scene, proper, and wherever fans of good, important music live. In some way, her recent rise can be compared to the recent renascence of the stirring veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette—also hailing from Detroit.

In fact, the style meter on Magness’s new album moves to various sides of the true blues genre, into swampy and country blues areas, as well as toward the vintage soul pulse. Listen, for instance, to her fresh and retro-slinky take on Jeff Barry’s great song “Walkin’ in the Sun” or the gospel-influenced album-capper, “Turn Your Heart in My Direction.” But throughout, we sense an underlying foundation of blues authenticity. Through her uncanny mixture of precision, tonal purity, scratchy-toned abandon, and inspired emotion-channeling, Magness’s music feels steeped in cathartic conquest over life’s woes, plus gratitude for the stuff of life.

Apart from musical passions, Magness is an avowed advocate for foster care issues (check her site,, as a way of giving back for her troubled early years. Musically, too, though, we can subtly sense the long arc of the fully formed woman using her art to rise above the turbulence of her past. For this and other reasons (including a hot live show reputation and a reportedly solid band), Magness’s Warren Hall show ranks highly on the not-to-miss index.

MAW WATCH: On the Music Academy of the West front, ears, brains, and souls are still buzzing from Christopher Taylor’s stunning piano recital last week. Taylor’s epic Messiaen performance in 2008 is the stuff of semi-legend. Last Wednesday, he once again raised the bar of introspective and technical—read deeply “musical”—brilliance, with a pair of theme-and-variation sets, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and J. S. Bach’s unparalleled Goldberg Variations, both profoundly realized at Hahn Hall. That evening will most likely be the summer’s hardest act to follow, a classical high point of the summer (and year?). The MAW parade, thankfully, carries forth. Gearing up for the big operatic moment (Don Giovanni, August 6 and 8 at the Granada), the next week is something of a seventh-inning stretch, sans the Tuesdays @ 8 and Saturday orchestral outings, but the calendar still offers master classes and the tasty Chamber Music Marathon, Saturday at Hahn Hall.

SHOW OF THE WEEK, PART TWO: Another high-profile item on this week’s musical calendar is Joanna Newsom, Friday at the Lobero. Newsom, bless her genre-defiant heart, operates in the indie music orbit, but has really written her own stylistic ticket, blending folk, art-pop, avant-garde, and epic song inventions—as heard on her strange and luminous new three-disc album, Have One on Me (Drag City).


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