The storm clouds parted just in time for the crowd to start filling the lawn at Brucemore for the 19th annual Bluesmore, co-sponsored by the Linn County Blues Association. It was all blue skies for the musicians who came to sing the same hue.
Opening the day was Kevin B.F. Burt and The Instigators. The band, a favorite staple of the E. Iowa blues scene, has been together for 20 years and their compatibility shone on stage Saturday. They got the crowd in the right mood for the next group — The Chris Beard Band.
The New York-based group fronted by Chris Beard, a first-class guitarist and blues singer, kept the growing crowd entertained as the sun set and the evening’s headliner Janiva Magness prepared for her performance.
When the headlining set at Bluesmore was nearly 15 minutes old and the headliner herself hadn’t appeared on stage yet, I’ll admit I was worried.
Certainly, the band was doing just fine. The members of the group had taken the stage and laid down a soft, solid groove that asked the large audience on the Brucemore lawn to listen attentively. A guitar solo grew in volume and intensity before making way for a keyboard solo that followed the same path. The tune sort of faded out oddly at the end, but the band immediately jumped into a traditional blues that found the keyboardist taking back-to-back solos using different voicings on his instrument. That felt like a stalling tactic to me, and I wondered just where Ms. Janiva Magness was.
But then the guitarist stepped to the mic to give us a rundown of the star’s various accolades (she is, for example, one of only two women ever to win the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award) before asking the crowd to make some noise to welcome Magness to the stage.
She was worth the wait.
Her set consisted primarily of songs from her latest record, “Stronger for It.” She opened with “Whoop and Holler,” an upbeat spiritual blues. The next number, “There It Is,” was decidedly less spiritual. The tune, which is about the singer’s desire to kill her no-good man, is one of three originals on the new album. Magness told the crowd that she’d always resolutely refused to write songs in the past, but all three were solid and demonstrated her range as a performer. “I Won’t Cry” is a powerful song about a powerful woman, and “Whistlin’ in the Dark” gave Magness the opportunity to show off the sweeter side of her voice, with less of the gravelly growl that characterized many of her vocals.
The weaker moments in the show tended to have more to do with the songs than with Magness’ performance of them. “Humpty Dumpty” is just as silly as the title might suggest, even though she sang it with utter earnestness. “Dirty Water”— a song she introduced by saying it went out to anyone who is tired of being lied to by family, significant others, or governments of all sizes — was perhaps the least listenable song of the night with its discordant sound and lyrics that try too hard.
She finished strong, however, delivering excellent performances of “Things Left Undone,” a moving song about regret; “You Got What You Wanted,” another no-good man number; and her encore, “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” a sexy and sassy closer.
As good as those numbers were, the end of the show was marred slightly by her lengthy band introductions and somewhat rambling story about her own life. Her mates certainly deserved the respect, and her story is a powerful one, but the sequence took nearly as long as it took her to come on stage at the top of the show. Both periods of time would have been better filled with her singing.
– Rob Cline