There was a bittersweet feeling in my heart as the idiosyncratic Valerie June took the stage at the Gothic Theatre last night. I had been waiting to see her perform for over a year and I couldn’t hold back my excitement as she introduced her ‘moonshine roots music’ with “If You Love And Let Go” from the Valerie June & the Tennessee Express EP. But I couldn’t escape the fact that I was standing in front of the stage alone. My wife hurt herself skiing over the weekend, so she was laid up on the couch at home while I was left to feel guilty about going to the show without her. Coincidentally, my dad was in town, so I was able to bring him along. He was holding down our choice seats in the balcony while I was on the floor…bewitched by Ms. June’s debut Colorado performance. Evidently the sound didn’t carry to the souls in the back of the venue, but those of us up front were witness to a sermon that made good on the promise made by Pushin’ Against A Stone.
As she took to the stage, there would be no mistaking Valerie June for anybody but who she was. Standing on turquoise boots with the tights to match, she was wearing a short, flowered dress with a black blazer criss-crossed by her guitar strap. Her dreadlocks looked way too heavy to hold, as her sunglasses rested neatly on top. She was beautiful even as she contorted her face to allow the different sounds to escape her mouth — the sharp, Joanna Newsom-esque high notes, the sounds of Memphis soul, the guttural blues, the Muddy Waters tribute and the Patsy Cline country — she was a woman possessed by the past and she was enjoying every moment she spent exercising the great voices from beyond.
After that first song, Valerie was joined on stage by her band — made up of a stand-up bass player and a percussionist. She took them on a ride through “Raindance” before being joined by Binky Griptite from the Dap-Kings. The trio kept her company through the six selections from Pushin’ Against A Stone, but there was no doubt that the hard workin’ woman was in control of the set. Rather than just run through her material, hoping to pluck some new followers from the Sharon Jones congregation, Ms. June regaled the ever growing audience with her own philosophy. “The Hour” was prefaced by a suggestion that we all read Wendell Berry – an author and environmental activist that has been a bigger influence on her life than any living musician. The title track from her latest album had a long introduction about getting ahead in life, only to have that stone roll back on you. It was story about friends and family and lovers — it was a story about survival. “Workin’ Woman Blues” was accompanied by tale about an older gentleman in Sioux Falls who had hands that had been worked to the bone. These stories (some told straight-up with open eyes and a smile, some in a rambling fashion with fidgeting that would have a child psychologist reaching for the Ritalin) painted a picture of Valerie June outside of her music. It added a personal element to the show that you rarely see in a short opening slot.
The set itself followed an arc. What started out as a solo folk performance ended up building with each song until it peaked with “You Can’t Be Told”. Ms. June traded the ‘baby’ banjo for a red hot electric guitar, making it the loudest, fullest sounding selection of the evening. It’s really too bad that the soundboard had problems distributing throughout the venue, because this song rocked the floor! Griptite and the bass player took their leave as things started calmed down toward the end of the set, leaving Valerie and her ‘baby’ alone for “Rollin’ and Tumblin” and the sole track from her independently released Mountain of Rose Quartz, “The Drifter”.
“why should I think that Heaven is my home, when I am a gypsy and I want to roam…I’m here, then I’m gone”
Valerie June doesn’t just sing about hard workin’ women, she proved herself to be one last night as she worked her own merch booth from the time she existed the stage until the time the venue closed down. She signed CDs and vinyl (for my wife), took silly photos with her fans and held conversations with whoever wanted to converse. I’m not sure I have ever seen an artist work their own booth the whole night. I have always respected Valerie June’s talent, but after last night’s performance and subsequent conversation, I can honestly say I respect her as a person as well. I hope to see her come back through Denver soon…hopefully as a headliner.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings performed an incredible set after Valerie June left the stage. Backed by an 8-piece band with two backup singers, the 58-year-old cancer survivor showed no signs of slowing down. She made one comment about her lungs and the altitude, but if she was feeling any pain, she hid it extremely well. Her stamina and (history of) dance moves were unbelievable!
If You Love And Let Go
Somebody to Love
Pushin’ Against A Stone
You Can’t Be Told
Workin’ Woman Blues
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings:
15 minute warm-up with the Dap-Kings and Dapettes
Stranger to My Happiness
You’ll Be Lonely
Long Time, Wrong Time
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Longer and Stronger
I Learned The Hard Way
Get Up and Get Out
Making Up And Breaking Up
Now I See
People Don’t Get What They Deserve
Slow Down, Love
100 Days, 100 Nights