“The banjo is an Appalachian instrument,” Valerie June remarked to the sold-out crowd in Brooklyn, NY. “But its roots are in Africa, so I like to think of it in both capacities.” Her reference to the origin story of the instrument encapsulates a musical style that also crosses geographies and genres, drawing from folk, rock, blues, and soul touchstones.
On Saturday night, the Tennessee native’s luminous voice, framed by guitarist Matt Marinelli, seemed to need no ampliciation to reach the upper balconies of historic Kings Theatre. Ms. June’s latest album, Pushin’ Against A Stone (co-produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Kevin Augunas) paints vignettes in vivid detail:
“Ain’t no dinner on the table, ain’t no food in the ‘frigerator,” she sings on Workin’ Woman Blues. The warm, saturated timbre of her vocals, enlivened by a horn segue, suggests that songs can fuel the soul even when the stomach is empty.
Valerie June is playing support this fall for Sturgill Simpson, whose own story crosses hemispheres to form the narrative backbone for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (2016).
The album song cycle is penned as a missive to his son, and saccharine though that premise may sound, the result is anything but. In lead track “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” the tender invocation of a father’s love veers into a bold Memphis jam. The sonic flavors — from Otis Redding to Stax-era Elvis to a poignant reinvention of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” — suggest, much as the lyrical arc does, that the grittiness of hard truths serve as sandpaper polish to reveal the gentle love beneath.
Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings play on the record (Mr. Simpson admired their work with Amy Winehouse). Alongside band members Bobby Emmett (organ), Laur Joamets (guitar), and Miles Miller (drums), the Dap-Kings deliver funky hits and punches that steer the album from straight country territory into soul and rockabilly.
And just when you think Mr. Simpson is done dismantling any expectations we may have had from the psychedelic-tinged roadhouse confessionals of Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (2014), he introduces a string section in “Breakers Roar.” The melancholy ruminations — “so enticing the dark dark seems” — are swept along in the tidal pull of Dan Dugmore’s steel guitar.
On tour, New Orleans-based horn players Jon Ramm (trombone), Brad Walker (saxophone), and Scott Frock (trumpet) carve a deep, danceable groove. Despite the assigned-seating arrangement of Kings Theatre, the crowd (some 3000 strong) was on its feet the entire show, spilling into the aisles.
The band played a muscular set with minimal banter, save for an appreciative remark from Mr. Simpson about a front-row fan’s shirt that read “Urge to Sturge,” as well as a recollection of one of the band’s first gigs in the city (at barbecue joint Hill Country).
Mr. Simpson’s Appalachia-inflected reeling out of city names and drinking games in “Sea Stories” (“hit the ground running in Tokyo, from Kawasaki to Ebisu”) brought me straight back to a conversation with the Lexington, KY-based Duane Lundy (Shangri-La Productions), who produced Sunday Valley, Mr. Simpson’s previous project.
Stu — as Mr. Lundy calls him — had been playing regional gigs for some time after returning from Navy service in the Far East and railyard days in the American West. A mutual friend, drummer Robby Cosenza (Vandaveer, These United States), suggested that the two meet. Simpson and Lundy swiftly realized they were of like mind on the overly-safe, anodyne direction of industry-ordained country.
Sunday Valley started working with Mr. Lundy shortly thereafter. Lundy credits “Stu’s personality and belief system” as integral to his success — the desire for a personal authenticity not beholden to Music Row dictates. And he distinctly remembers things “clicking, shifting direction” from Sunday Valley’s souped-up, Telecaster-driven howl toward Simpson’s present sound.
The rowdy and robust feel of songs like “Brace for Impact” are discernible in Sunday Valley’s “Goodbye” from the 10-in-20 recording project (ten groups each spent two days with Lundy, recording an original track). And while Sunday Valley is no more, talk to any Lexington musician about Mr. Simpson and you’ll discern the pride — the story of the Kentucky boy who’s done right by his home state, crossing the sonic Equator — a pollywog no more.
The final song of the night in Brooklyn was “Call To Arms.” In the repeated, throaty growl of “this bullsh*t’s gotta go,” we could surmise that Mr. Simpson was railing not just against the warmongering that is the song’s subject, but also against the rules that constrain rather than nourish.
And as the evening closed, the raucous cheers left no doubt of Mr. Simpson’s influence in navigating a new course for artists simultaneously within and outside industry coordinates.