Janiva Magness,
Bury Him at the Crossroads
(NorthernBlues, 2004)

For those whose memories stretch back that far, Janiva Magness's record will bring to mind those splendid albums Maria Muldaur was recording in the 1970s. Muldaur, like Magness, had superior taste in material, which she set in arrangements that were both tradition-based and appealingly innovative.

Thirty years later, of course, that production now sounds -- these things being relative -- more rootsy than contemporary. Magness takes that sound and updates it for the early 21st century. Another neo-traditionalist, African-American singer/multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor, does something of the same. Taylor, though, writes nearly all of his own material, and Magness prefers to interpret others' work.

In its most nakedly looking-backward moments the CD nods to older blues artists. J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale has Swallowed Me" and Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way to Get Along" (which the Rolling Stones long ago rewrote as "Prodigal Son") get acoustic, country-blues treatments, but are transformed by Magness's fierce yet perfectly controlled vocals. Plaintive old-time banjo sounds open the Jeff Turmes title tune, presumably about the legendary Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson (though his name is never mentioned), but acoustic slide guitar and doom-laden percussion soon wander in, washing the song in an unsettling, spooky ambiance.

Other songs, however, are plugged-in, sometimes sparely, sometimes densely, with jazz and/or R&B shadings. The opening cut, "A Woman Knows," juggles various albeit related African-American vernacular styles without ever dropping the ball. Magness's reading of Sam Cooke's relatively obscure "Lost and Looking for My Baby" creates a moody, musical noire that pulls the listener into its dark little world. On the other hand, the jug-bandish "Less and Less of You" -- though certainly entertaining -- could have dropped in its entirety out of one of those old Muldaur records. I do not, however, regard that, all else considered, to be more than modest detail.

Bury Him at the Crossroads is an exceptionally conceived and executed record, the sort of thing surely more easy to imagine than to bring into the world. It is anything but just another generic blues-shouter outing, for which we can credit Magness's considerable gifts and, equally, the genius of guitarist/co-producer Colin Linden, who is sort of a Canadian Ry Cooder. Between them they prove that, when the moon is right and the mojo is in hand, the blues is just waiting to rise from the dank soil and walk to the crossroads yet one more time.

by Jerome Clark
12 March 2005

Janiva rocks!

That isn't quite accurate since her oeuvres is the blues seasoned with a bit of R&B and not rock. Still, I say it without hesitation: Janiva Magness rocks!

I found much to laud and little to criticize in this album. Perhaps a musician with more blues experience could find some fault. I found only pleasure. The 13 selections include five original compositions by Jeff Turmes, her husband and long-time musical partner, in addition to others by traditional bluesmen.

Janiva belts out a song in a sultry voice that may remind the listener of other songstresses from the past. Her talent made her a 2004 W.C. Handy Award nominee for Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist.

Best known on the West Coast where she now lives, we owe this album to a meeting between Janiva and Canadian guitarist Colin Linden at a music festival in Alberta. Linden was so impressed he came up with a proposal for an album, which he pitched to Fred Litwin, president of NorthernBlues Music.

After getting the go-ahead, the pair began assembling a roots band -- Linden on guitar; Richard Bell, Janis Joplin's keyboard player; Jeff Turmes on sax, banjo, bass and rhythm guitar; and Stephen Hodges on drums.

It's hard to pick a favorite from this album. There's an excellent version of J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Has Swallowed Me" and a nice guitar solo by Linden on Magic Sam's "Everything Gonna Be Alright," a traditional Chicago piece. Then there's the title piece, "Bury Him at the Crossroad," obviously Turmes' ode to the great Robert Johnson, a slow and somber dirge full of dark Southern symbolism, or, more upbeat, Turmes' "Eat The Lunch You Brought."

It's all good music. But, it would be less good without Janiva.

by John R. Lindermuth
8 October 2005

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