From the get-go, Valerie June made a memorable impression at First Avenue on Saturday night.
The Tennessee-born singer/songwriter (now living in New York City) came onstage in a black-sequined jumpsuit, leopard-spotted cape, and cowboy boots, dreadlocked hair piled high, to open with “The Hour,” a good-love-gone-bad song. Later June explained, “I went to the closet to see what kind of shiny shit I can wear. I know it’s too much. But I said, ‘Well, you do what you gotta do in this world.’”
What June does, and does well, is rewrite the rules of roots music. She blends genres—blues and bluegrass, country and soul—as if they were always meant to be together. Her take on Americana comes by way of an experimental spirit. And while June’s vocal tone is singular (high yet full, punctuated by growls) you can hear hints of other artists’ influences in her songs, from Dolly Parton (another Tennessean) to Lucinda Williams, even Erykah Badu in terms of rhythmic wordplay.
June’s current tour, promoting her 2017 album The Order of Time, features a solid band that she referred to fondly as “the handsomes”: guitarist Andy Macleod, Dan Iead on pedal steel, bassist Matt Marinelli, and Ryan Sawyer on drums. They enlivened June’s more familiar songs, “Shakedown” and “Can’t Be Told,” and added bona fide country charm to a cover of Frederick Knight’s 1973 tune, “I’ve Been So Lonely for So Long.”
“I put on fairy dust like I put on my blush, too strong,” said June. “I came to shine.” And June’s stage wear wasn’t the only thing about her that shone. She talked with the audience like an encouraging friend and explained how some of her songs come from dreams; when introducing “Workin’ Women’s Blues” she gave a shout-out to “all the beautiful goddesses” in the room.
And often June danced, slowly winding her hips and hands, taking in the rhythms of her music and reinterpreting them back to us in a physical manner. When playing the banjo, guitar, or ukulele she seemed to urge the instrument on (especially during “Man Done Wrong”), leaning close in to listen to the tones, allowing her hands to dance along the strings as if casting a spell.
The encore included “Astral Plane,” a stylistic contrast with June’s earthier tunes. A reminder to enjoy the meditative quality in music, the song promotes unplugging. “Somebody to Love” was a heartfelt plea for acceptance. The final selection of the evening, “Got Soul,” played out like a revival, sending us all into the night refreshed.
Notes on the opener: Birds of Chicago, the husband-wife Americana team of JT Nero and Allison Russell, offered a sunny, love-powered vibe with songs like the whimsical “Flying Dreams” (“I wish you flying dreams/I don’t wish you wings/Cause if you grow those things/There’s no more dreams/There’s only silence in the night”) and the new Woody Guthrie-inspired tune “American Flowers.” “You come to a proper rock club like this and you can’t escape that old folkie shit,” joked Nero.
Nero and Russell offer a deep well of poetic inspiration for the good and bad times. They describe their genre as “secular gospel,” and perhaps no moment was more moving than Russell’s a cappella performance of the modern-day spiritual “Barley,” an homage to her grandmother. “The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me,” she sang, lifting her sparkling crystal voice into the rafters. With such a strong artistic and personal bond, Birds of Chicago are indeed unshakeable.
The crowd: A mix of young and old, folkies, hipsters, a touch of boho. Lots of swaying together—both acts are great room-unifiers.
Overheard in the crowd: While June was chatting with the audience between songs, a woman near the stage unleashed an impressively loud belch, much to her surprise and that of everyone around her. June, without missing a beat, said, “I heard that burp. I love it when we’re human.”
Critic’s bias: June is just a delight, and it’s a treat to experience the world through her perspective.
Random notebook dumps: “This is my baby,” she said, introducing her ukulele. “There’s the mama, the stranger, the granddaddy,” she added, referring to her guitars and banjo. She went on to explain that she “told her baby” that she couldn’t sing but “one day she busted out something like Aretha” and now she’s in the show.
Love You Once Made
Man Done Wrong
Pushin’ Against a Stone
Twined and Twisted
Love Me Any Old Way
Can’t Be Told
I’ve Been Lonely for So Long (Frederick Knight cover)
Workin’ Woman Blues
Slip, Slide on By
Somebody to Love