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The Magical Realism of Valerie June


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Valerie June is something of an enigma. She has an earthiness and pragmatism, befitting someone who grew up in small-town Tennessee. At other times, she conveys a child-like innocence and sense of wonder. June is also a cosmic dreamer in pursuit of harmony in the universe. She is also a first-rate artist who has released three outstanding albums and is a magnificent performer. I had the great pleasure of seeing her perform in New York City (May 4, 2022). The stage was adorned with bright shining stars and flowers reminiscent of a celestial garden. This plays on the theme of the title of her most recent album: The Moon and Stars: Prescription for Dreamers (Fantasy, 2021). The message in her music and onstage banter, which may seem fantastical to some, is grounded in the stark realization that the world can be a harsh place. One needs tools for maintaining sanity, equanimity, and mindfulness. It is part of the struggle to find joy under difficult circumstances. June also expresses a deep reverence for nature and its healing powers.

An excellent young blues guitarist, Buffalo Nichols, opened the show with a solo set of original compositions rooted in rural folk blues and the anger and pain that reflect modern-day social injustice. His use of electronic effects expands the sonic capabilities but doesn't change the commitment to celebrating the traditional blues form.

Valerie June was accompanied by a 10-piece band including three horns, viola, pedal steel guitar, keyboard, drums, bass, and guitar. The pandemic disrupted the tour supporting her last album, and one might expect this concert to be a continuation of the tour. However, the setlist drew liberally on her last three albums, which enjoyed great critical acclaim. June sings with a Southern twang and a slight nasal pitch. Her voice may be an acquired taste for some, but it is certainly part of her charm. It is equally hard to pigeonhole June's music. Her early work was most strongly rooted in blues, gospel, and Appalachian folk. But there have always been gospel, country R&B, and rock strains. June described her music as "organic moonshine roots music," which is somehow an apt description. She had the perfect ensemble with her on stage to embrace and express the rich musical diversity

The concert opened with "Man Done Wrong," a defiant blues off her second to most recent album The Order of Time (Concord Records, 2017). The band was joined on stage by members of the Resistance Revival Chorus, an NYC-based women's collective, to perform a drop-dead gorgeous rendition of the gospel-flavored "You and I" from her most recent album. The choir would return for another song towards the end of the set and were among the great highlights. "Call me a Fool," also her most recent album, sounds like it could be straight out of the mid-60s Stax songbook. The version on the Dreamers' album features a duet with the great Carla Thomas, a Stax recording artist. "Shakedown" is a straight-ahead blues-rocker that lifted the energy level in the room. June also performed an interesting set of covers. She performed an uncharacteristically upbeat version of Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" that worked remarkably well. June did a faithful cover of "What a Wonderful World" accompanied only by her mini banjo that she refers to as the "Baby." This was followed by an a cappella version of "Lonesome Valley" with just her tambourine in hand. The encore featured two songs from her excellent major label debut Pushin' Against a Stone (Concord Records, 2013), "Workin' Women Blues," a fierce blues rocker that is always a crowd favorite. The band kicked into high gear and played a high-octane version that was incredibly exhilarating.

Valerie June radiates positivity and unbridled joy on stage. To quote one of her tweets, "When we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live." For two hours, magic was in the air, and the audience was transported to a place of boundless optimism and possibility.
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