Monday, October 21, 2019

Mempho Day Two: Valerie June Honors a Fallen Friend & More

Posted By on Mon, Oct 21, 2019 at 1:50 PM

click to enlarge Valerie June at Mempho - NATHAN ARMSTRONG
  • Nathan Armstrong
  • Valerie June at Mempho
Before this past weekend, the last time I listened to Valerie June was in a tiny art shop in Paparoa, New Zealand at the end of May with my wife and sister.

The Memphis-raised alt-folk star was playing on the stereo, and the shop’s owner excitedly described herself as a big fan. We were just as thrilled to let her know that June was from our neck of the woods.

She was back there yesterday, playing what was arguably the finest set of Mempho’s second day at Shelby Farms Park. Wearing a blue-purple frock and sparkling pants, June came armed with her famously unmatchable sense of positivity — and the ability to show her hometown audience why people like Bob Dylan think she’s absolutely the bees’ knees.

From ‘Shakedown’ to ‘Astral Plane’, June played all her big hits, but it was her heartfelt tribute to Mary Burns that really put the hook in. Burns, the beloved owner of Cooper-Young’s Java Cabana who died this month after battling lung cancer, played a major role in June's life. June played her first ever gig at the cafe, was close with Burns until the end — and last night, played the 2013 track ‘Somebody to Love’ on banjo to honor her friend.

“You look around the world and you find your people,” June told the crowd. “You find your heart people - your soul people. Mary was one of those for me.”

“I’m not going to cry,” she continued, “instead I’m going to think about her spirit. That Memphis spirit. That ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ spirit. That ‘if the world don’t believe in you, believe in yourself’ spirit.”

Her set’s conclusion - which saw her joined by iconic local musician Hope Clayburn for ‘Working Woman Blues’ — was the perfect cork for her hour on stage.

click to enlarge Brandi Carlile at Mempho - NATHAN ARMSTRONG
  • Nathan Armstrong
  • Brandi Carlile at Mempho
Before June performed, local favorites The MDs, paying tribute to Booker T & the MGs, were the pick of the afternoon acts. Afterwards, it was alt-country headliner Brandi Carlile that deserves the plaudits. At nearly an hour and a half, Carlile — nominated this year for six Grammys — delivered a sharp, impressive performance to wrap up the festival, pulling numbers from throughout a long career in alt-country.

Like the Wu-Tang Clan the night before, Carlile — flanked, as always, by long-time collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth — ruminated on Memphis’ musical history (“how iconic is this town?”) as well as recalling a gig she played in a dive bar near the University of Memphis that saw crawfish heads lying on the floor by the end of the performance.

Earlier, the Revivalists provided a spirited set, though lead singer David Shaw was perhaps asked to do too much by his largely immobile band mates, gamely providing the only stage presence. Still, their crowd rivaled that of The Raconteurs the night before. Californian indie popsters lovelytheband disappointed, with lead singer Mitchy Collins seeming to spend more time talking about the band than playing their tunes. Show, don’t tell, brother.

For me however, June was the needle that really hit the groove. Watching one of Memphis’ finest recent musical imports doing her thing as the last few rays of weekend light yawned across the festival, it’s hard to think of a better lasting memory of this year’s Mempho.
click to enlarge Mempho Fest 2019 - SPENCER JOHNSON, CREATIVE STUDIOS
  • Spencer Johnson, Creative Studios
  • Mempho Fest 2019

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