Kudos to the booking agent who had Naomi Wachira on the bill Sunday night at the Tractor Tavern with Valerie June. I was happy to finally catch Wachira live, and doubly gratified to be within earshot of June.
Wachira finished her set with "African Girl," a song she referred to as her soul anthem—something I thought was a curious thing to say about a song—but if you can imagine being so deliberate, so certain, so confident with words, then you can begin to imagine the level at which Wachira sings. With songbird-like vibrato and the ability to wrestle the breath from every note, she sang and played guitar for a mostly solo opening set (a backup singer accompanied on a couple of songs). She’s a local treasure to be certain, and was the perfect opener for Valerie June.
June is a west Tennessee (Memphis, by way of Jackson) songwriter who stumbled into singing and taught herself to play guitar and banjo. Still, it was about an hour and a half, and many banjo songs into her set, when she announced “I don’t know how to play this thing, I just make it sound how I want it to, I mean, it’s mine, right?” And she was right. June has writers tripping over themselves to compare her to everyone from Erykah Badu to Joni Mitchell (I mean, at least dig a little, she’s more like Rosetta Tharp meets Francine Reed), and people want to include the names of her recent producers when talking about the sound of her new album. But it’s clear listening to her music live that Valerie June is playing exactly and only how Valerie June can, which, luckily for us, is a virtuosic roots-country filled with ragtime and blues.
June finger picks and strums with her thumb rather imperfectly to get to her sound, and her singing voice is mostly just a nasally holler, but somehow that’s perfect for the stories she tells, and she knows it. “I’m not a musician, I’m a person who plays music,” she said as she held the at-capacity, mostly seated crowd completely captivated. I did not expect Valerie June to actually embody her songs. Like a folk music method actor she’d tell a happy little story—“I started wearing draws, y’all, there’s just too many pairs to like, you know?”—then close her eyes, strum an intro, and become the subject of her song. On her version of Elizabeth Cotten’s Appalachian traditional "Freight Train" she wasn't just singing a folk song, for all I know it could’ve been 1930 outside the brick walls of the Tractor Tavern.
She announced that she’s been writing songs for a while (nine years ago she taught herself to play guitar), but never wrote about murdering a man until she married one. She then played her own murder ballad, "Shotgun." Groaning, growling, and growing possessed (breath was short, gasps were heard), she clawed at the strings and tore at the neck of her guitar with the slide (once she even smashed it frighteningly with her fist)—it was the most convincing adaptation of the feelings being sung about I’ve probably ever seen from a performer. Then, transformed, she laughed “I’m not a murderer y’all, I swear! I don’t even own a shotgun, yet.” Then, just like that, she jumped the track into some gospel, playing “This World Is Not My Home” which she sang and played sweet enough to make my heart jump right into my throat.
Somehow June’s Southern style is so friendly that she can field drunken song requests with a polite ''no," handle the hecklers who simply must know about her hair (seriously people?), and still get all of her stories (mostly adventures about underwear, and other Memphis blues singers) in. Valerie June’s between-song banter was practically a clinic for how to handle a crowd as a musician. Of course she played an obligatory encore (something I think we can go ahead and dispense with in this century), in which she managed to tell a story about the voices in her head that write the songs for her, sing the best version of "Goodnight Irene" I’ve ever heard, and play just about every song one could want to hear from her catalogue (now three albums and an EP deep).