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Gig Review

Valerie June
Brighton, The Haunt

Article written by Alan M - Nov 26, 2013

Valerie June
When you find yourself pathetically succumbing to peer pressure by drinking tequila worm shots to celebrate your stepson's 18th birthday, you instinctively know that the following day will be somewhat tricky. And so it proved, as 24 hours later I made my fragile way to see Valerie June, desperately hoping that a dose of her organic moonshine roots music would be able to deliver, where a fry up and paracetomol had spectacularly failed.

I was here tonight following a tip off from a friend who’d asked if I knew of this great new American soul singer. I got busy. I saw that she had been described as: country, folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues, and finally soul. The dilution of her soul credentials had me wavering, but on balance, the opportunity to see an up and coming American artist (she’s been popping up all over late night US talk shows) playing an intimate gig in my hometown, still generates a frisson of excitement and anticipation, so I stumped up a tenner for a ticket. And I’ll be honest with you, call me shallow (actually let’s start at shallow, move on to blokeish, and finish at sexist) but my decision to attend the gig was in no small way influenced by the fact she looks amazing.

I’ve never really got country music. I’ve been guilty of taking the name literally and opined that only folk working the soil could ever appreciate and fully understand the music. In the same way I scoff at callow white youths from the Home Counties listening to hip-hop I’ve always been rather suspicious of country music fans that live in urban areas and that don’t own a plough. Tonight I am hoping to be educated.

The Haunt in Brighton is a terrible venue. The layout – worryingly reminiscent of the worst football stadium from the bad old days – is funnel shaped with the narrowest of entrances that even a gaggle of size zero models would struggle to navigate, eventually filtering out into a wider space in front of the stage. Naturally the bar (“we’ve only got cans mate”) is preposterously situated adjacent to the narrowest part of the room, effectively creating a “one out, one in” policy to enter the venue. Thank goodness some punters needed a fag or a piss otherwise we’d still be wedged in at the back now.

So using some old fashioned anti-social barging skills learnt on the terraces in the bad old days, we manage to escape the bottleneck and look for somewhere to stand. It’s pretty rammed even at the front but luckily just as I was beginning to despair an unlikely ally appeared in the guise of the ubiquitous pissed-old-soak-who-is-on-his-own throwing some shapes in the corner to Hank Williams much to the bemusement and mild terror of the crowd. With bottle in hand he is spraying booze all around and has successfully fashioned his own one-man exclusion zone of a few yards all around. Undeterred, we park ourselves within the exclusion zone like the General Belgrano and wait. I take a minute to look around. Even allowing for the fact it’s Movember it’s pretty hairy in here and the local Appalachian clothes outfitters has been doing a roaring trade. I am sporting an Adidas track top. It’s clear I have much to learn.

Valerie June walks on stage. The high cheekbones and tumbling dreadlocked hair make for a striking presence. Then we hear the voice. She sings “Somebody To Love” from her new album. It’s an almighty shock. Her voice a raw, twangy, Tennessee soprano, seems more suited to someone twice her age, twice her size, somebody gnarled, grizzled and soaked in Jack Daniels; a female version of the dancing buffoon next to us. Yeah I’m shocked, but in a good way I think. After the opening song she is joined on stage by her band, bassist/double bass player and drummer. Well, I presume there was a drummer; I never actually got to see them courtesy of the iron girder conveniently situated front left of stage. Did I mention The Haunt is a shit venue?

After a few songs I find myself warming to her idiosyncratic voice and the bare, honest, stripped down quality of her songs. To her credit she doesn’t look or sound like she’s on the final leg of an extensive tour and will be homebound in a few days. She plays several tracks from the new album “Pushin’ Against A Stone” – the best of which were “Workin’ Woman Blues”, “You Can’t Be Told” and “The Hour”, plus a Carter Family song “Walk That Lonesome Valley”, which pleased the country aficionados in the crowd.

In between the songs June tells us stories in a stream of consciousness style that is utterly charming. Twirling the dreadlocks between her fingers as she talks, we are gripped by the minutia of her life: shampooing wildcats in the family backyard, European time zones and how she is deliberating over the name to give her new guitar. It’s clear we are smitten.

As the evening comes to a close, I’m aware that I’ve succumbed to her charms. It’s no longer about musical genre; it’s simply about appreciating raw talent. I’m so enraptured that I’ve completely forgotten about the pissed-old-soak-who-is-on-his-own who has been on a one-man crusade to ruin the evening. So when June plays a banjo for one of the encore songs I think of Deliverance and imagine that Jon Voight is lurking on the balcony with a bow and arrow.

The last song of the evening is the Leadbelly track “Goodnight Irene”. June sings this a cappella. It’s spine-tingling stuff. For the last verse she steps off the stage and walks through the crowd singing. She hits the final note and then simultaneously vaults over the bar and takes the applause and awaits a drink. If this were a Richard Curtis film the barman (a Matthew McConaughey look-alike) would have a Jack Daniels poured in one hand and would be ruffling his hair with the other. The couple embrace passionately and June would be carried home on the shoulders of her lover to a raucous accompaniment of foot tapping and thigh slapping. Oh, but it’s not. This is The Haunt remember? Instead a befuddled barman fluffs his lines and before a warm can of lager can be summoned up, June has vaulted back across the bar and headed to the back of the room to sell some merch.

I’d like to thank Valerie June for soothing my hangover, but more importantly giving me an education. I never expected to hear myself say this: Yes country for old men.


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