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Valerie June At The Fonda Theatre, Friday April 8th 2022

Valerie June
Valerie June

In a world of plastic pop stars with acrylic nails, auto-tuned vocals, and polished Instagram accounts, there is Valerie June. With her down-to-earth approach, she has her feet on the grass and her head in the stars just like the busy stage setting at the Fonda Theatre seemed to tell us. There were numerous bouquets of fresh flowers all over the circle of amps and large stars lighting up the background, and there was even the moon on the side, a nod to her last album released last year, “The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.”

Americana soul singer-songwriter Caitlin Jemma opened the night with a short set of acoustic songs drawing inspiration from classic to alt-country – she and her unique musician covered Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” With a plaintive soprano and an authentic twang, her songs with bluesy chords sounded like introspective ballads and since she has called herself “a cosmic cowgirl,” she was an excellent fit for the night.

At the sound of birdsong and wind chimes, Valerie June showed up in a short black outfit with glittery fringes, her voluminous dreadlocks packed in a large unruly bun decorated with pink flowers, and for the rest of the show, she was all smile, looking like the perfect reflection of the undefeatable optimism running through her songs.

A Valerie June show is much more than a musician playing a few personal songs and a few covers, there was also a lot of talking involved, a lot!. June is a very entertaining performer and a talker: “I swear it’s not a standup comedy,” she said at one point of the show.

Throughout the show, she switched between multi instruments from acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and banjos with great ease, launching the show with the throbbing ”Man Done Wrong,” a hypnotic tune encapsulating June’s ability to blurry distinctions between genres. The song almost sounded like a traditional African number built around a mantra-like guitar line and a drum loop while her nasal voice evoked the Appalachian folk style.

With her idiosyncratic music, the Tennessee native blends folk, soul, country, blues, and old-time pieces with nods to Afrobeats, and when she talks, her Southern twang makes her sound like a Black Dolly Parton. She has called her style “organic moonshine roots music,” while she expresses a special connection with the natural world – she advised us to stare at a flower for 30 minutes during our lunch break or to enjoy the ocean since “no matter what you do in your life you’re gonna hit some rainy days.” June is the type of person who finds magic, mysticism, and spirituality in the most ordinary things.

Mid-show, she wrapped herself in a shiny white cape which captured the light and made her look like a shiny butterfly escaped from a fairytale. Light and magic were indeed central themes last night: she told us that shine should rhyme with kind and how important it is for the world to see “a woman in a black body as magical.”

During “You and I,” she blended a meditative Buddhist “omm” with pedal steel, wobbling keys, and a poppy chorus while she screamed “You and I” on one of the highest notes of the night. “I had a dream, but I have a lot of them,” she said before playing “Call Me a Fool,” her retrofit song featuring Queen of Memphis Soul, Carla Thomas. “When you have a lot of dreams, they call you a dreamer,” alluding to the world’s adversity towards creative people. “If you want to be a magical being in the world, you gotta lean on dreamers!” June’s flexible vocals shone during the song as she pushed her chords to some raucous and roaring heights. With an old soul running through a lot of her songs, she sang the following “Smile” on a very high note and with an even more pronounced nasal tone. She also had these full cowboy-with-fiddle-yee-haw numbers that sounded like some old Carter family songs – it may have been the case, I could not see the setlist – as the band made the crowd bounce on their feet.

Alternating between the soul-searching “Two Roads,” a muscled-up “If And” from her 2017 album, ”The Order of Time,” a Nick Drake cover (“Pink Moon”), the meditative and luminous “Astral Plane” that slowly built up, the organ wobbling “Slip Slide On By,” and throbbing banger songs like “Shakedown” that messed up her wild hair, Valerie June’s set was as diverse as it gets. Between songs, she was abundantly talking and talking, arranging her ideas in such a colorful manner with her many voices, always focusing on our ability to choose beauty. “When you see what we see day after day on the news,” she said “it goes into your spirit and body and we carry it every day… all of that energy has to be balanced with beauty and light! Beauty is political!”… these are practice, beauty is practice”… ”There was a time when, if you were African American and you played music, you had to enter through the back door,” she continued alone on stage before covering Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”… “There was a guy who sang a song in the midst of way worse times than what we’ve seen and there was a smile on his face because he knew where we were going,” she added with a huge smile.

During the encore, she dedicated the infectious Afro-blues jam ‘70s-inspired “Workin’ Woman Blues” to “all the goddesses” and after “Somebody to Love,” she ended the show with a Jerry Garcia cover, “Drink Up and Go Home” demonstrating once again her remarkable versatility. Valerie June is a true performer: on stage, she exulted joy and optimism in a constant effort to balance the burden of the world, while she succeeded in convincing everyone that playing music is a spiritual experience. While grounded in history, the show was dreamy and colorful and her eccentric personality was as mystic as it was down-to-earth, a clearly difficult thing to improvise. It was impossible not to be under her spell and the audience was visibly charmed. “Songs have hopes and desires bigger than me,” she said in an interview. “Just like a person does. I think everything is living. If you didn’t notice, I’m totally emotional and everything has feelings.” Last night was all about these feelings.


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