LIVE: Valerie June @ The Egg, 2/25/18
Review by Don Wilcock
I love Valerie June. Her concert at The Egg on Sunday night (February 25) not so much. I’ve been listening to her music for seven years. What I love about her is her ability to channel hill country blues artist Jesse Mae Hemphill, to take the raw and rugged qualities of hill country blues and turn them into trances that become adult lullabies. Translating that magic into a show for 1,000 people expecting to hear all the songs from her major label debut CD is a difficult trick.
There’s a difference between being a singer-songwriter, a performer and an entertainer. When an artist’s creative muse is all encompassing and powerful, the journey from the songs they hear in their head to presenting that music to the general public can be a treacherous tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon. Bob Dylan has had issues with taking his muse in front of large audiences throughout his career. I’ve learned to suspend all expectations when seeing him perform. He’s constantly molting and morphing.
Like Dylan, Valerie is still playing for herself more than her audience. Allowing herself that freedom and being able to exercise it in front of a thousand people is a luxury most performers don’t have, but because she is so mesmerizing, unique and talented, she should be allowed to do that and be rewarded by an understanding audience, which she had Sunday night. She got a standing ovation.
Dylan shouted out to Valerie recently in his blog. She laughed nervously in an interview last month when I mentioned his bow to her. “I was totally blown away. I’m still blown away. I’m pinching myself. I’m just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I do not believe it. It’s amazing.”
Like Dylan, her music comes from way inside her soul. Her influences run from Jesse Mae Hemphill to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (who produced her 2011 CD, Pushin’ Against the Stone), from Tennessee gospel to Prince and Bobby Womack, both of whom her father presented in concert.
One of those influences was Hill Country bluesman Robert Belfour who refused to let her play with him. “He told me, ‘I do what I do, and I don’t want to do anything with you because I (distinctly) do what I do and not with anybody else.’ And he said, ‘You do what you do,’ and that was the greatest teacher ’cause I get asked to do
stuff all the time, and I just have to remember it’s OK to just focus on your craft and do what you do and do better at what you’re doing. And it also taught me that no matter how many big stars are out there playing guitar, we all do what we do, and we all do it differently, and it’s our music. So, he was a great teacher to me.”
Belfour, like Valerie and Dylan, got his mojo from looking into his heart. “There are masters in a lot of the books I read about spirituality,” Valerie explained. “Masters would be like the great teachers. Robert Balfour was like a great teacher to me in the path of art and creativity and brains. He was a master. And so he would
speak to me, and it didn’t matter whether I was disappointed or not. Jimmy Kimbrough or the Rolling Stones? Nobody did it like Robert Belfour did it. They’re gonna have their own style. And their own way of doing it.”
The people who came to hear Valerie June at The Egg on Sunday night were ready to give her her space. For them her concert was like an intimate reading with a psychic. You have no idea what you’re going to hear, but you’re girded to accept it. “People who’ve lost someone or maybe someone’s in hospice or people who are dealing with loss and grieving would listen to my songs and (realize) they were still connected and would come to me after the show and tell me a story about how a song might have helped them heal. (They may have) played a song for one of their loved ones who passed on. Music is so powerful in that way.”
She admitted to me that she finds touring on a successful major label album cramps her style. “One of the things I miss is that (I used to be able to) just jump around and play new songs and not have to be the entertainer and play things that are familiar. Now, if I want to play a full set of all my songs that have never been released, never been recorded, then I start to get nervous.”
So, a Valerie June concert is an event like a fantasy novel. You have to suspend your disbelief or preconceptions and ride the tiger. Never mind that that there was an hour wait between her opening act’s set – the War & Treaty – and her show. Never mind that her performance was less than an hour but her encore lasted half again as long. Never mind that her band was like a toy in the hands of a toddler, sometimes superfluous to the song, often jarring following channeled vocal forays that transported you into another dimension of space and time. (Thank you, Rod Serling!) And then, again, if you could shift gears fast enough, they’d take you to places as transcendent as the first time you heard Led Zeppelin do “Stairway to Heaven.”
“I’ve been writing songs for a long time and (some of ’em) are just for me, or sometimes I’ll have a song just for my friends,” explains Valerie. “It’s just for my niece, who was just born. That’s her song. I don’t sing it for anybody else but her. Deciding which song is a song that’s gonna change the world is a whole (different thing). It’s so different that I never really thought about it, but you have (to decide) which ones get to go out there to the world and which ones are just for you. Which one are for your friends. They tell you. The songs do. Sometimes I’ll go to the band, and I’ll play new songs, and they’re not feeling it. So, I know it just doesn’t involve them. That’s a way a song tells you what it wants. It tells you, no, I don’t want this, or yeah, OK.”
It’s a slippery slope, and one that gets problematic when an artist goes mainstream as Valerie June has done with her major label album The Order of Time. Her Albany concert was the last one on her tour, and I think she was doing this one for herself as much as she was us. She wasn’t performing as much as she was sharing herself with us. In a rambling discourse from the stage she talked about finding your light, observing that young children know how to do this, but most adults lose that capacity. An astute observation.
At times, her band seemed like an unnecessary contrivance, a play thing for her indulgence. The sequencing of her songs seemed to get in the way of one of her best qualities, a trance-like voice that constantly was taking left-hand turns, breaking the mood as she darted from lullabies to hard-rock forays with the band that in
contrast to her solo numbers were like fingernails on a chalk board.
And, yeah, I still love her. At her best, she’s like chimes in a gentle west wind.