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The Transcendent Valerie June
If you’ve ever doubted magic is real, then you've yet to see Valerie June play live.
Last night I was blissfully whisked into a wonderful world of dreams, manifestations, roots-blues-soul-Americana heaven. "But with none of that woo-woo bullshit," Valerie June proclaimed with her Tennesee twang. Like a priestess of hope, Valerie entranced The Fonda Theater audience from the moment she walked onto the stage.
Her songs are soulful, spiritual, funky, complex, yet childlike. Funny thing, I can't say I've got a favorite song of hers. Instead, I love playing her music because it's all rooted in one vibe, JOY. I've found it impossible to hear her records and not be changed for the better. Her music is poetry, meditation, and a sonic transformation from spirit to reality.
I've heard musicians, new and old, gripe there are only so many chords, melodies, beats, and rhyming patterns in music; things are bound to sound the same. Well, Ms. June didn't get that memo. Valerie's voice, songs, and lyrics cast such a spell on me that I purposely chose to remain willfully ignorant about her process. For seven years, I enjoyed wondering, what kind of artist can absolutely shatter conformity and still be so attainable with her music? I dared not dig deep into interviews or research lest my whimsy be shattered.
Then the world changed. A pandemic locked everyone behind closed doors and into isolation. Eventually, the blackest days found a crack of light, and Valerie released a new album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. On my solitary hikes up Runyon Canyon and around Griffith Park, I soaked in the California sun and soothing sounds of Ms. June's latest song sermon stockpile. Effervescent as ever, pushing beyond the spectrum of her previous work, Moon & Stars' songs are luminescent, primal, ambitious, and a resilient testament to her authenticity.
I purchased concert tickets and invited my friend Val, who was equally excited to see some Tennessee stardust sonically scattered across The Fonda's stage. Arriving early, we contemplated what kind of Los Angeles crowd gathers to see such an eclectic artist? Surveying the half-empty floor, I feared that the turnout might be small. Silently judging the fickle reputation of L.A. audiences, I turned and saw one of my oldest friends Matt, and his girlfriend, Malissa. To my surprise, they'd driven up from Orange County for the show. It'd been months since Matt and I had a chance to catch up. Surely this was a sign, there was magic in the air.
Birds chirped, wind chimes rung, and the lights dimmed, so Val and I shimmied our way up to the front of the stage. Here was the moment I'd been waiting for. I was about to witness an inspirational ear pixy craft her spells in person! Out she came, larger than life. Her flower-adorned dreadlocks, an artful mess upon her head, waved like Medusa's snakes, only promising freedom, not petrification. She strapped on her trusty banjo, pursed her lips, and hummed the opening melody of Man Done Wrong. We were off, and I was transfixed. Her set welcomed the audience in with a kind embrace rather than the rock-and-roll call-to-action openers I am used to. Val tapped me on the shoulder, "Look," she said, pointing to the audience behind us. The floor had filled, and the balcony was overflowed to standing room only. Indeed Los Angeles had shown up to pay tribute.
The perfectly diverse audience united in dance, clapping, and singing along as best we could. Her band was subtle and tight, giving plenty of room for Valerie's improvisations and storytelling. She shared that her grandmother and brother were sick. Raising her hand toward the audience, she said, "All I can do is bathe them in blue light and send them love." I swear, at that moment, I felt a sonic rush from behind, like every person at that show transmitted love right back to her. Throughout the night, she talked about universal struggle, perseverance, and harmony. She said, "It's all our job to make this world beautiful. I know it's not easy. It takes practice. Beauty is a practice." It was the closest thing I've ever felt to being in a proper church filled with good people of all races, sex, gender, age, or conceivable difference. It was her beautiful practice manifesting itself.
I've been guilty of going to concerts and trying to connect with an artist in the moment. Perhaps shouting out a favorite song in hopes of them fulfilling the request. Well, a guy tried that between songs, and Valerie quipped, "Don't tell me what to do!" In the sweetest way possible, she cut down the patriarchy and claimed ownership of the stage. She nurtured onward, saying, "It takes time to craft a show. Trust that there's a plan." Fiddling with her instrument, she then gracefully offered, "Ya know, if I can't get this banjo in tune, I might just take you up on that request." As if she planned the moment, everyone laughed on cue, and she began to sing What A Wonderful World.
I could've bobbed, swayed, and stomped my feet all night, but all good things must end. Walking out of the show, I told Val, "I don't know how, but after seeing her play live, her mystique has grown, not diminished." Little did I know, the magical evening wasn't done with us. Just then, I ran into a couple of other friends, Rick and Chyna, chatting with KCRW D.J., Raul Campos. They were headed upstairs for a possible meet and greet, so Val and I followed.
We spent the next twenty minutes gushing over what a phenomenal show it was—each calling out our favorite moments. Then she appeared, draped in a star-spangled robe, her glittery shoes shining from beneath; the evening's enchanted songstress was up close and personal. We introduced ourselves and got into it. We talked about art, music, and the state of the world: spiritual healing, community, and the joy of being able to congregate again. "I think it's important," Valerie said, "we need to be together. Think about being at a museum looking at art. Doesn't it just look nicer if you're standing next to someone, even a stranger? You're sharing that experience. We need more of that."
"But that's you," I said, "You're the art. Look at all of us coming out tonight, not just to stare but to dance and sing. All because you're delivering a message. It's fucking beautiful." Not gonna lie, I lost my cool because I was so excited. Charming as ever, she absorbed all our compliments. Never rushing, always engaging, and again I found myself spellbound by what a unique being Valerie June continued to be.
It was nearly 1 am, and time to go, but not before we took some pictures. Placed between my friend Val and Valerie, they teased me about being in the center of a Valerie sandwich. Indeed, I was lucky to be in the company of such magnificently spirited women, and I blushed with abandon. I couldn't stop laughing at what a topper, on top of the most top of a night this had been—seeing good friends, meeting good people, listening to great music, and talking about healing the world. An evening so incredible, I woke up, still sparkling after only four hours of sleep, just so I could put it in writing and never forget.
The magic is out there. Get some. Listen to Valerie June, and remember – Beauty takes practice; let's make the world beautiful.
Visit ValerieJune.com for news, music, merch and tour info