As lights went down over a sold-out Beacon Theatre on Feb. 6th, Valerie June sauntered to center stage and assumed the mic without much flourish. The hall was big—and fancy! With seats! And you should have seen the bathrooms! And June looked like she would have just as soon played in a whiskey-sticky dive in the middle of nowhere. She might have felt that way, too: the Jackson-born June played gospel music at her church in Memphis as a kid, took her first job hanging posters around town for her music promoter father, and made her bones as a country-folk singer weathered by hard times and hard work. June’s sensibility expanded markedly with her signed debut, Pushing Against A Stone, which doesn’t channel gospel so much as ragged, rough-edged soul, spiny Appalachian traditional music, and a noisy rock and roll edge courtesy of the album’s co-writer and producer Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys).
And though Pushing Against A Stone was huge for June’s career, and she’s been busy with shows ever since it came out, she still stood in front of Thursday’s crowd like a green performer. She didn’t say a word to the audience. That wasn’t a bad thing in this performance: set against the glamour of the Beacon, her rumpled presentation was actually pretty refreshing. June began her set alone in front of the stage curtains, banjo at her feet and her band members’ stools behind her, unmanned for the moment. Dressed in a lightly patterned floor length dress, her head of dreads piled over her shoulders like Medusa’s snakes, June put her hands on her hips and began to sing “Goodnight Irene.”
She had a sore throat, but you’d never have known it. After her three-man band joined her on stage, the horsepower behind her vocals picked up, and June’s voice expanded to maintain focal status on stage. The songs were louder, weirder, and better than their studio versions. Sung live, the normally mournful “Somebody To Love” was devastating and a little pissed off. The songs were plaintive on Pushing Against A Stone, but carried the meanness and swagger of much louder songs when June performed them live.
“I love you, Valerie June!” a male voice called, while she was between songs. June cast up her eyes in the vague direction of the voice and paused, finally answering, sort of half-heartedly, “That’s more’n I can say for…the man who put the ring on my finger.” It was sort of a half-baked exchange.
“Uh, they don’t let me out much. Can’t take me anywhere. And I can’t be told, neither,” she continued, promptly launching into the last song of her slim set, “You Cant Be Told.” It made sense as a closer: it’s the heaviest, catchiest rock song in June’s arsenal, though the strange power of her voice in songs like “Workin’ Woman Blues” trumped any bass line. When the song was done, June stepped away from the mic, slung her purse over her shoulder, and stalked off the stage.
Though June and headlining act Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings had plenty in common—they’re both soulful, female-fronted groups with blues influences—Jones’ performance was spectacularly theatrical. Flanked by a large, swanky assembly of horns, strings and vocals, Jones danced all over the stage, bending down to touch her fans and exchanging warm shimmies with her band members. The night’s performance was a celebration: Sharon Jones fought cancer in 2013, causing the release of her new album Give The People What They Want to be pushed back to January of this year. She only recently started playing shows again, but Jones went hard. She appeared at the Beacon triumphantly bald in a glitzy gold dress, unabashedly vocal—and funny—about her struggle to get back to music. “I don’t want you to look at my feet,” Jones proclaimed, pointing down towards her shoes. She’d turned her insecurity on its head, rocking out wiglessly and pushing her endurance with a long, acrobatic set.
“Get up and dance!” Jones commanded. The entire house obliged and began to dance. The high-energy performance included a lot of new songs off Give The People, polished and boisterously strong. The set was long, and neither Jones nor the dancing audience showed any signs of slowing down. After about an hour and a half of the bluesy soul music—the brass, the dancing, the acrobatic vocals—I was exhausted. Sharon Jones was not. As I slipped out the back, the party raged on, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones and her soul party were still whooping it up on the Beacon’s stage right now.