Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 29, 2014
Mulling over Valerie June’s “Austin City Limits” debut on Wednesday evening at ACL Live, a friend wondered whether it might be “too early for her to have an ACL taping.” It was an understandable thought: The rising talent from Memphis had played this room three months earlier, but as a support act, opening for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Was she ready to take center stage?
June’s 15-song set, which was streamed live on ACL’s YouTube channel, left not a shred of doubt. In what felt like a star-making performance, she brought to bear a broad range of strengths, from a wonderfully distinctive singing style to an instrumental versatility to a flair for blending multiple American musical genres into her own personal synthesis.
Part of the beauty was in the pacing. The show started very low-key: June, decked out in a spectacular charcoal-gray dress with green boots and sparkling necklace and earrings, started on acoustic guitar, with spare accompaniment from violinist Mazz Swift, upright bassist Jason DiMatteo and drummer Kevin Raczka.
Piece by piece, she filled out the colors. Dap-Kings guitarist Binky Griptite joined them on “Tennessee Time,” from last year’s acclaimed album “Pushin’ Against A Stone,” providing tasteful but not showy support. Saxophonist Hope Clayburn and Shayla Jones came aboard next, bringing a soulful heft to the new album’s “Somebody to Love” and “The Hour.” On the former, June played banjolele (a banjo-ukulele hybrid she lovingly referred to as “baby”); later she played traditional banjo as well.
She pared things back down to basics for three mid-set songs that included the show’s clear highlight, “Shotgun,” on which June gently picked and strummed a bright red electric guitar, sometimes using a pinky slide, into which was tucked a dazzling, dangling red scarf. Raczka was her only accompanist, laying back with minimal percussive accents until the song’s fiery climax in which both musicians blasted forth on their instruments. It was a spellbinding moment.
Sprinkled amid the originals were covers of classics in the genres of country (the Carter Family’s “Happy or Lonesome”), blues (the Muddy Waters staple “Rollin and Tumblin’”), gospel (Albert Brumley’s “This World Is Not My Home”) and folk (Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”). They helped provide context for June’s own work, giving hints as to where her journey began even as she has ended up in an entirely original place.
Both the band and the ACL staff seemed prepared to wrap things up after “Goodnight Irene,” but the crowd wouldn’t let June depart without an encore. She came back out solo and expressed her appreciation for Austin, joking that “I was thinking about cheating on Tennessee with Texas” before playing “The Drifter,” from her 2008 album “Mountain of Rose Quartz.”
“I am a gypsy,” she crooned in her trademark twang, which falls somewhere between Tennessee mountain holler, Neko Case torch and Far Eastern yin-yang. “I only want to roam.” With this kind of talent, June can roam wherever the magic takes her.