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Lake Street Dive

LAKE STREET DIVE

VALERIE JUNE

SEP 9 | 8 PM

As a band, Lake Street Dive epitomizes democracy in action: the group, expanded into a quintet since touring keyboardist Akie Bermiss officially joined in 2017, share writing and arrangement duties. Their personalities, skills, and wide-ranging taste in pop, rock, R&B, and jazz have long blended together to make an impressively cohesive sound, both sophisticated and playful, combining retro influences with contemporary attitude. On its most recent Nonesuch album, 2018’s Free Yourself Up, the band even produced the record itself.

But, after being on the road for nearly 18 months since that album, the band members decided they could use some outside help. They had been writing, swapping demos, and rehearsing before and after soundchecks or in backstage green rooms and had amassed a wealth of new material, full songs, and sketches. With more than three dozen new songs and the desire to make a concise, vinyl-length album, they turned to Mike Elizondo, the producer-songwriter-multi- instrumentalist whom Lake Street Dive fans might remember as music director of Chris Thile’s public radio series, Live From Here. The Grammy Award-winning Elizondo is perhaps best known as a songwriting collaborator of Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent, but he has also served as a record producer for Fiona Apple, Mary J. Blige, Carrie Underwood, and 21 Pilots, among many others. He is as conversant in jazz as in rock, country, bluegrass, and hip hopexactly the sort of genre-juggling guy who would appreciate Lake Street Dive’s own versatility.

Obviously (2021) is titled after the first word in the lyrics of opening track “Hypotheticals.” And it is obvious from the start that the band has homed in on Elizondo’s hip-hop record-making expertise, because, on this material, the grooves run especially deep. A sense of rhythmic fun drives just about every track, from up-tempo numbers like “Hush Money” to a bittersweet slow dance like “Anymore.” The quintet fashions disarmingly cheerful arrangements guaranteed to keep the party going even as the subject matter takes a more serious turn on lead-off single, “Making Do,” about a younger generation facing a life of diminished expectations, and “Being a Woman,” a finger-snapping, bird-flipping treatise on gender inequality. “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” is a letter of encouragement from lead vocalist Rachael Price to her teenaged self, co-written with bassist Bridget Kearney.

Though they still excel at songs like “Lackluster Lover,” poking sly fun at a hapless Lothario, Lake Street Dive has also figured out how to write tunes that reflect this particularly turbulent chapter in our shared history. As Price puts it, “You’re trying to express your anxieties, your feelings, your sadness, your happiness, all of these thingsyour authentic state of being in a song. But you’re also trying to create something people will listen to over and over again. That’s the unique fun thing about music, putting these messages into three and a half minute snippets, dropping whatever truth we can and hoping it’s the type of thing that people want to ruminate on.”

With the permanent addition of Bermiss to the line-up, Lake Street Dive gained another singer and songwriter, as well as a keyboardist. Vocal harmonies have been a strong suit since the band’s earliest days in Boston, when the original foursome became a YouTube sensation for its impromptu sidewalk singing. Here, with Elizondo’s encouragement, the group vocals are among their most inventive. On “Same Old News,” Price and Bermiss do a lighthearted and sexy Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway-style duet. Album closer “Sarah” is performed a cappella, and it is as lush and emotive as an orchestrated piece.

“We had so much fun in the studio making Free Yourself Up,” recounts Kearney. “But we’ve been a band for so long that we didn’t want to just become a feedback loop of our own ideas. It felt like a really good time to bring another person like Mike [Elizondo], and he really opened us up. He encouraged us to make bolder arrangement choices, take those chances and try those things. The record really is a success in what we set out to do: continue to challenge ourselves, continue to grow, and do things we’ve never done before.”

“Throughout our recording projects, our frame of reference has come from classic rock and ’70s AM gold,” explains McDuck. “But in terms of modern production aesthetics, no one is getting it right more than hip-hop. There are a lot of great rock and roll records too, but there are aesthetic choices that we, as a rock band, always struggled with when it came time to mix. So, it was great to work with someone as musically omnivorous as Mike [Elizondo], who’s had all that success and fluency in the hip hop world but can also hang when it came time to talk about double bass.”

Prior to joining Elizondo at his suburban Nashville studio, Lake Street Dive had been on what would now be an unthinkably jam-packed schedule: concert dates, Brandi Carlile’s “Girls Just Wanna Weekend” festival on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, and the annual Cayamo Cruise back east, a floating music festival with Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples, the Watkins Family Hour, and more. They managed to complete the recordingand even an album-cover photo shootbefore the pandemic lockdown. The studio, filled with an abundance of guitars, amps, keyboards, and synthesizers all prepped for their use, was an ideal, semi- secluded location for the band to build these tracks from the ground up.

“Playing it live all together as a start is never a bad idea,” says drummer Mike Calabrese. “Even if we didn’t keep anything but the high hat, everyone’s in there getting a feel for the arrangement. But there were other songs that were constructed piece by piece. ‘Sarah’ was the first song we recorded because we had all the voices we needed. ‘Feels Like the Last Time,’ which starts with Akie beat boxinghe beat boxed to his own demo of the song and Mike [Elizondo] was like, ‘That’s a good tempo, let’s just use that.’ We cut that up, flew it around, and pieced the song out and added layers to it bit by bit.”

Bermiss had already integrated himself into Lake Street Dive as a live performer, touring with them for the last five years, but he has now revealed himself to be a songwriter able to get right into the band’s groove. His beat-boxing skills were an inadvertent bonus. Kearney notes, “This was the first time we got to collaborate with Akie as a writer. He really brought a lot of stuff to the table. It’s pretty remarkable that you can add somebody to a band after 14 years and have this completely new writer who fits into the grand scheme.”

Bermiss uses the word “organic” to describe how he came to work with Lake Street Dive, starting with an invitation to go on tour with them back in 2015, after the band had caught him performing a gig of his own. That led to his joining them on the Free Yourself Up sessions, and, finally, to a night in Chicago where, he recalls, “There was a formal ‘engagement’ situation. They took me to dinner and told me it was a band thing they like to do, and while I was distracted, they each put plastic engagement rings on my plate and asked if I would take their musical hands in band marriage.”

Choosing an album title was organic as well. Price says, “Naming our albums has always been a painstaking process. Obviously is the first word in the song ‘Hypotheticals’an undeniable dance track, a great way to say, ‘We are back!’ We went through a couple of title iterations, then one day we were like ‘Obviously, let’s call the record Obviously.’ It wasin a wordobviously the right one.”

—Michael Hill

VALERIE JUNE

The latest full-length from Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (2021) emerged from a long-awaited revelation on the part of the Tennessee-bred singer/songwriter. “With this record, it finally became clear why I have this dream of making music,” June says of her third album for Fantasy Records. “It’s not for earthly reasons of wanting to be awarded or to win anybody’s love—it’s because dreaming keeps me inquisitive and keeps me on that path of learning what I have to share with the world. I think when we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us, and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live.”

The follow-up to her widely adored The Order of Time—a 2017 effort that earned the admiration of Bob Dylan and landed on best-of-the-year lists from the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York TimesThe Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is a potent catalyst for that kind of magic. With her spellbinding vocals and infectious sense of wonder, June gently eases the listener into a far more charmed state of mind, one that quickly restores a powerful feeling of joyful possibility.

Produced by June and Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, John Legend), The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers achieves that transcendent effect thanks in no small part to the splendor of its sound, an exquisitely composed tapestry of folk, soul, gospel, country, blues, psychedelia, and time-bending symphonic pop. In bringing the album to life, June and Splash stayed true to the spirit of wide-eyed exploration by working with an eclectic lineup of esteemed musicians, absorbing themselves in a prolonged period of free-flowing experimentation and playing with a magnificently vast palette of instruments (flute and banjo, mbira and Mellotron, saxophone and synth, to name just a few). The result is a selection of songs both ornate and elegant, each moment crafted with a profound awareness of what’s most essential in creating enduring beauty.

Though the shapeshifting textures of The Moon and Stars prove infinitely mesmerizing, the album’s most enchanting element is June’s vocal presence, the extraordinary and often breathtaking sound of someone pouring her whole heart into every note. At turns ethereal and gritty, ferocious and fragile, June’s vocals possess a certain transformative quality, instantly melting away the chaos of the everyday and leaving only the immutable glow of absolute truth.

Infusing each line with her warmly delivered insight, June narrates the long and precarious journey toward realizing a dream. “Any dream is going to be work, and you have to be willing to put in that time and effort to go the long path,” she says. “There’s a lot of failing and rising and twists and turns, but dreaming itself can also be a strengthening force that we can all tap into.” One of many songs graced with a lavish string arrangement from Lester Snell (Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Solomon Burke), “Stay” opens the album with a piano-laced rhapsody urging listeners to carve out “their own personal space to dream freely,” as June puts it. Next, on “You and I,” June speaks to the ineffable joy of letting others into your inner world, the track’s effervescence intensified by the hypnotic rhythms of percussionist Humberto Ibarra.

After the luminous clarity of “Colors” and softly soaring urgency of “Stardust Scattering” (a song partly inspired by the surrealist poetry of Sun Ra), The Moon and Stars presents an African proverb read by legendary Stax singer Carla Thomas (aka “The Queen of Memphis Soul”). From there, Thomas lends her backing vocals to the album’s showstopping centerpiece “Call Me a Fool,” a gorgeous piece of throwback R&B fueled by smoldering horns and a particularly soul-stirring performance from June. “It’s very scary to have a dream,” says June in revealing the song’s message. “Everybody in your life will tell you that you’re crazy and it’s never going to work out, but you’ve got to let the world call you a fool and just go for it anyway.”

Although The Moon and Stars slips into a heavy-hearted mood on the stark and sorrowful “Fallin,” June’s irrepressible intensity returns on the radiant “Smile.” “As a Black woman, a song like ‘Smile’ makes me think about everything my race has gone through, and how positivity can be its own form of protest,” June points out. “It’s saying, ‘We are oppressed, we have so much against us—but the one thing you’re not gonna take from me is my smile.’” One of the album’s most beautifully untethered moments, the trance-like “Within You” shares what June calls a “mantra for rejuvenation,” while “Two Roads” channels a dreamy determination in its lilting pedal-steel tones. A song of sweetly articulated triumph, “Why the Bright Stars Glow” then leads into the album’s glorious finale: the slow-burning “Home Inside,” a prayerful invocation whose lyrics are threaded with June’s tenderhearted wisdom (e.g., “Earth is a school/To shine is why you came”).

At several points throughout The Moon and Stars, June offers up what she refers to as “reflective meditation moments”: atmospheric interludes meant to lull the listener into a state of lucid serenity (the album’s final track, for instance, features recordings of mockingbirds singing outside June’s window during her time spent quarantining in Tennessee). “I know that when I’m ready to give up on something on the dreamer’s path, taking even 30 seconds to just focus on my breath can completely shift my energy and help me to keep going,” she notes. To that end, the subtitle to The Moon and Stars alludes to the so-called prescriptions June created to accompany each song on the album, a carefully curated collection of elixirs, contemplation questions, and daily practices assembled to help the listener along on their own dreamer’s journey.

In the making of The Moon and Stars, June added an element of ritual to every recording session, including adorning the studio floor with mandalas made from fresh-picked flowers (a rite inspired by 19th-century author Clara Lucas Balfour’s assertion that flowers are undoubtedly “the stars of the earth”). Working at Fresh Young Minds in Los Angeles and Hit Factory Criteria in Miami—with each session serendipitously transpiring under a full moon—June found an ideal collaborator in Splash, who shares her tendency toward childlike adventuring in the artistic process. “For this album I wanted to see how we could bring some modern elements into that band-in-the-room approach I’ve taken with my records in the past,” says June, who first broke through with 2013’s critically acclaimed Pushin’ Against A Stone. “Anytime you create, you should always be exploring and changing and trying things you’ve never done before.” With their reference points ranging from the freewheeling Afrobeat of Fela Kuti to the grandiose string arrangements of longtime David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, June and Splash introduced otherworldly effects and beats into the album’s elaborate orchestration, soon arriving at a sound that’s entirely singular and endlessly surprising.

In creating such a transportive body of work, June ultimately provides an utterly immersive listening experience with The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, one that serves as a much-needed respite from the outside world. “I see these songs almost like matches for people to strike when they need to reignite that inner light and keep going when things feel dark,” says June. “I hope it helps them to feel empowered, to realize their strength and their beauty and all the gifts they have to give. And I hope it also helps people to recognize the light in everyone around them, so that we can all connect with each other in a kinder and gentler and more loving way.”


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THANK YOU TO

Dan and Gayle D’Aniello,
Wolf Trap 2021 Season Underwriters

PNC Credit