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ACL Fest review: Valerie June

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By John T. Davis

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 12, 2013

I’m still trying to get my head around Valerie June’s performance Saturday afternoon on the BMI Stage, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Every once in awhile, if you’re lucky, you see an act at SXSW or ACL who is simply revelatory, and the Tennessee-raised, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter falls, as far as I’m concerned, squarely into that rare category.

June describes her music on her website as “organic moonshine roots music,” and that’s as apt a characterization as any. Blending everything from acoustic mountain music to horn-fueled soul, it’s as if a young Dolly Parton had somehow wound up at Stax Studio. All the musical rivers of the South seem to be at her disposal.

Last week on the same stage, June played a good chunk of her set acoustically and was devoured by sound bleed from one of the rock bands on the Lady Bird Stage. This week, no fool, she came loaded for bear, with both a string section and two backup singers who also comprised a mini-horn section.

She began her set alone with a banjo, keening her way through a gospel lament in an appealingly reedy voice that is reminiscent of Erykah Badu and, yes, Billie Holiday.

But it wasn’t long before she was joined by fiddle, string bass, cello, backup vocalists, sax and trumpet. The call-and-response gospel of “Hour” ping-ponged with the stately, almost chamber music arrangement of “Somebody To Love,” which yielded to a Carter Family cover.

But June and her cohorts hit their stride with the pulse-racing, almost breathless “Workin’ Woman’s Blues,” as the horns dueled with the strings, the groove popped like grease in a skillet, and (no other phrase for it) the crowd exploded.

June’s set ended with her solo, again, playing a banjo ukulele and crooning through Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” and then strapping on a red electric guitar for the harrowing murder ballad, “Shotgun,” because, well, every set needs a murder ballad.

Valerie June could have left the concluding number off the set list. She’d already killed.