About four songs into her set at New Hampshire’s Prescott Park, Valerie June addressed the crowd. “What about the things that are going right?” she said. Random cheers from the audience. “I hear a lot about what’s going wrong, what about what’s going right?”
She had just finished a hip-shaking rendition of “Shakedown,” from her latest album The Order of Time, a roots-folk-soul gumbo with a bit more of an electric attitude than her breakthrough album, Pushin’ Against a Stone. June is no saccharine neo-folk artist. Many of her narrators don’t have what they truly want. They either just missed it or it’s forever hovering just in front of them. That’s the case in the next song she played, “Slip Slide On By.”
“Well, I knock at your door,” she sings, “Gather your heart from the floor/When no answers come/Ever still, never run.” The attitude is, if you’re going through hell, keep going. June wrote the song “High Note” for Mavis Staples’s recent album, Livin’ On A High Note, and the influence is obvious. I have said in the past that if you don’t leave a Mavis Staples show feeling good, I don’t know how to cure you. June is made from that same mold. She may sing about heartbreak and struggle, but she does it with an irresistible joy.
There may be more happy tunes on the way. “I don’t have many positive songs,” said June. “I have maybe two or three.” Then she described an inspiring conversation she had with Staples. “After I got off the phone with her I had like ten or twelve. I’m still waiting to put out my spiritual album.”
At Prescott Park, June and her band played a note-perfect set of songs June wrote for herself and others. She danced with a group of children in front of the stage and brought a girl up onstage to keep dancing. It was uplifting, by design, even as she tore through a fierce rendition of “Workin’ Woman Blues” and the more wistful “With You.” “Got Soul” was the closer, and that’s the bottom line.
I spoke with June before the show in the “green room” at Prescott Park, which is an open tent outfitted with comfy furniture and a bar in front of the dressing room trailer. We started off talking about a “fashion show” she had done, just for herself, in her trailer that day. She had started to talk about it as I was setting up the microphone, and I thought there might be something there, so I asked her about it as we started, and wound up with a wonderful tangent right up front, about confidence and attitude, and David Bowie. We spoke about her career, which began long before she broke through in 2013 with the Dan Aeurbach-produced Pushin’ Against a Stone.
The conversation ended somewhat abruptly as my memory card filled up at the same time June had to get going to get ready for the show. So hopefully, we’ll get her back on the Department of Tangents somewhere down the road. Maybe when that spirituals album comes out.
After the conversation, hear a hilarious new track from Shane Torres’s new album, Established 1981, on which he defends one of America’s cheesiest chefs, and one of Canada’s cheesiest bands. The track is called “A Man Named Fieri Filled With Fury.” Established 1981 is out on September 8 on Comedy Central Records.
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