Valerie June has soul. The kind of soul only Memphis can produce: genuine, determined and deeply rooted in the blues. Taking to the stage at London’s hottest new venue, Omeara, she also carries the confidence of an artist on the rise. And so she should. In just a matter of years she’s gone from busking in the streets of West Coast America to a guest slot on Later… With Jools Holland, signing to Concord and, on 18 January, performing a sold-out show in the UK’s capitol.
Supported by three horn players for much of the night, her set packs a punch and makes for theatrical viewing, combining influences from the blues, folk and gospel, and leaning heavily on new material from her upcoming March release, The Order Of Time. New single ‘Shakedown’, an electric blues number, gets the crowd moving early on and is received like an old classic. ‘Astral Plane’, another new song, is more delicate and showcases June’s distinctive, soaring vocals.
In a sparkling red dress, sunglasses and dreads pouring over her shoulder, June is a striking presence. Halfway through the opening number she commands her sound man to “turn up that damn guitar” – and is met with huge cheers from the enthralled London crowd. Her character is infectious and she introduces many of her songs with endearing tales of growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. (Much to the amusement of her audience, the two banjos on display this evening are also introduced, nicknamed Baby and Mama.)
The highlight of the show is saved for last: another new number, ‘Got Soul’. It’s the catchiest song in her armoury, an energetic mission statement that sees the whole band erupt into one large soul jam. On the tiny Omeara stage it’s a tight squeeze for an eight-piece, but at full pelt the energy spills out into the audience. “That was fun!” June exclaims. “You gotta have fun.” She’s right, let’s do it again sometime.