Valerie June and her band took their tour to The Town Hall this past weekend in NYC, an idyllically styled theatre that has wonderful acoustics to match its class.
First, out came the drummer, alone, breaking the silence with an exasperated jungle-beat solo. Next, the musicians followed one by one, giving a layered beginning to the knowing excitement of hundreds of zealous fans. Then Valerie June walked out, clad in her glittering stark pink jumpsuit, and Coco Chanel-looking specs, and jumped into a old-school rocker while screams of emulation filled the venue from just about all in attendance.
And then June started to play, and sing, by herself. As cliche as it is to write, her voice is something that words can’t fully capture. What can be assured in writing is that her voice is certainly career-defining, and will be one of the extraordinary assets cementing her as an artist unlike any other during her time. If you were to try to evoke a description, it might read: the brainchild of an innocent angel and a banshee, one moment delicate and the next utterly primal and a complete dumping out of guttural emotion onto the floor.
Her show this particular night was mostly a pallet of her folky material, like on the early number “The Hours,” with her plucking along on either guitar or banjo, or later her prized ukulele, and her voice strengthening these acoustically driven songs one hundred fold.
But here and there, her band followed up with some of her more soul and R&B inspired songs, and then some tunes blended these worlds, such as the jazzy honky took number of “Slip and Slide.”
The combination of her songwriting, her voice, and sometimes the rising and falling of the horns delicately on top of it all makes her music come and go like a fever dream, sometimes possessing a serenity that eases and at other times a random wildness, that shakes you awake for these sudden moments of expressive shock.
On tunes like “Shakedown” and “Two Hearts” came a gradual, organically built power from her band that brought the music to several strong climaxes, lifting the Town Hall just a tiny bit off of the ground before winding things quickly back down again.
Something remarkable that also made itself clear about halfway through the performance was June’s genuine, personal surrender to the intensity of her music, and of her band. By the high point of the evening, whenever she wasn’t belting into the mic, you could hear her faintly singing to herself away from the mic, piping along with the energy of her band. When she wasn’t doing this, she was invested in her dance moves, channeling the gyrated mannerisms of Elvis and Michael Jackson as much as her outfit did.
Valerie and gang brought us down the other side of their musical chateau, towards the second half of the show and through more folk material. As we know, what unofficially certifies someone as a true modern carrier of Americana music is their gift for storytelling, and June has this in her bag as ready a tool as her magnificent vocal chops or her expert songwriting skills.
She took her audience on a yarn about how she composes her music. Her explanation was that she hears voices. She insisted, truly hears voices. Sometimes, she told her listeners, they are the voices of kids, sometimes men, and sometimes women, women like herself and totally unlike herself. And then she tries as hard as she can to compose something that tells their story to the world.
One day recently in her career, she went on, the voice was that of a woman, and it was the most beautiful voice she had heard in her life yet. June proceeded to play “Twined and Twisted,” her artistic offering to best translate the story of this woman. “Got no place in this old world, shackle bound, but still I roam,” she sings here, and the trifecta of her song’s melody, carried along gracefully by her featherweight guitar picking, her rapturous voice, and the tiny but monumental story personified by her choice lyrics, all work to command the entirety of of a listener’s heart, soul and mind all at once.
Transfix and mesmerize are powerful words, and might get at the reality of what it’s like to hear Valerie June perform in front of you. But in truth, they’d only be getting part of the way, because it might be something more important happening. Stolen might be the proper evocation.
“That’s the only rule: you have to feel it when you sing it.” That was Valerie’s last ponderous statement to her crowd before they all went on their way.
At least, that was before June encored with about four or five songs. These started off with June leading on a couple of her most gorgeous tunes the contemplative “Somebody to Love” and then the gospel-inspired “Astral Plane” from her newest album The Order of Time.
But the last song they gifted to the crowd, “Got Soul” was a revelation, this time a musical revelation, as her band reached to match the level of her passion and earnestness. It was a total offering of physical exertion, with horns blaring, piano player ripping solo after solo, and drums thundering along. As the band cranked away on an uplifting, undulating soulful number, June went about as free-soaring as possible for a folk singer. She started by racing to the edge of the stage, to literally scream into the faces of the crowd closest to her. Then she circumvented The Town Hall’s massive stage, dancing enthusiastically for a few moments beside every single member of her band, as they each took a turn giving one last brief but great solo.
Eventually, the fever dream had to end, as all do, and June had to be coerced up from rolling around on the floor, flinging all of her limbs into the air in complete surrender to the end of the song.
Written by Miles Hurley