Valerie June smiled, her teeth brilliantly white against red lipstick. She leaned close enough into the microphone to kiss it and said, "See, I have something that not many people get to have in this world."
The whole Aladdin Theater quieted, even those rabid fans clustered at the front of the dance floor, desperate to hear June's secret revealed.
"An elephant," she finally said, matter-of-factly. She then explained that this was what her bandmates had nicknamed her massive wardrobe suitcase.
June's whole presence—unapologetic Tennessee drawl, head-to-toe sequins and gems, bare feet, dendritic dreadlocks—seems a romantic relic from a bygone era of show-business gloss, like if Tammy Wynette or Lynn Anderson developed an incongruent interest in the blues.
The Order of Time, June's long-awaited follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2013 debut Pushin' Against A Stone, may be more gospel than country, more neo-soul than neo-folk, but it nonetheless recalls the stripped-down simplicity of those old-time country crooners. The tunes are all vaguely within the same vocal range, the lyrics rhyme and are often about dancing or love, and seldom do their harmonic choices elicit surprise.
And yes, an intelligible measure of grit somehow got lost between June's first album and her second. But those who dismiss The Order of Time as imitative, poppy junk have overlooked one thing: June, like the greatest performers of the roots-music genres she's influenced by, is first and foremost a live musician.
Onstage at the Aladdin, June gave off the impression of a gilded, sauntering mermaid, hands and fingers doing a curled, hypnotic dance through every instrumental break.
Coming out of juicy, frayed-edged blues ballad "You Can't Be Told," she said, "You know when everything's going right in life, and then you freak out?" The crowd at the front erupted into Beatles fan-level shrieks, as they had at almost everything she'd said. "I wanna tell you that you can accept what's good in your life. You don't have to question it."
Later, in the encore, for which she'd changed into a billowing red skirt, she made sure to add: "I've been wearing a lot of shiny clothes, and people think it's about me. But it's not about me. It's about you." She floated into "Astral Plane," The Order of Time's biggest single, which offers real wisdom: "Is there a way for you to shine without fear / from other worlds, but you can't say what keeps you here."
June may not break any new musical ground, but live, she is a force of good, old-fashioned positivity, inviting listeners to embrace the excitement of the present moment without irony or judgment. Few performers have that invisible thing—that unquantifiable thing that most people just call soul.
All photos by Thomas Teal.