There are probably as many ways for listeners to find songs as there are listeners. And songs. For this reviewer, one of those moments was when Amos Lee’s smoky, soulful “Vaporize” came on the radio during a rainy afternoon drive. There’s something about hearing the right song at the exact right moment. It means a total stranger has completely synthesized and set to music the particular set of joys (or, in this case, sorrows) we’re experiencing. It’s both cathartic and connective.
No doubt a lot of people have had a similar experience with any number of Lee’s songs. Since he first surfaced with tracks like “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” and “Sweet Pea” his voice and easy delivery have felt, from first listen, familiar. That was clearly the case at The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, where Lee performed to a crowd that was, if not at capacity, at least fully devoted to the singer-songwriter.
He walked onstage partway into the first song. His six-member band, all dressed in black, created a sort of jazz club vibe (with a brass section) — moody and sultry, for the beginning of “New Love” from Lee’s recently released album, Spirit. The title track, onstage, captured swampy New Orleans gospel. But songs from that record — though all built around an essence of spirit and soul — range from the deep groove and sway of “Highways and Clouds” to the folky, tender “One Lonely Night.”
The latter was performed as part of an acoustic set, with the full band (most of them multi instrumentalists, bringing banjo, mandolin, electric and standup bass, keyboards, organ and Dobro to the mix) gathered around a single mic. Their combined voices on the uplifting chorus — sung almost in a round — created a gorgeous moment. Lee played guitar during the acoustic set, and on solo songs “Night Train” and the heartbreaking “Arms of a Woman” (which he told the audience he’d written in South Carolina). But for much of the show Lee focused on his vocal — and that really is the star of the show.
So let’s talk about that voice. If it’s more pure, more cleaned up, on recording, the warm humanity and unhurried friendliness that Lee conveys from the stage is worth the price of a ticket. And he’s a performer who isn’t precious about his song. He reworks them, jams on them, mashes them up. His interest is clearly in entertaining and being in the moment with the crowd. Some times that impulse is almost to the detriment of the show — Lee threw in jokes about his own lyrics mid-song and entertained all of the professions of love from the crowd. But when it was time for a sing-along chorus, the audience was right there with him. And, as anonymous and ungoverned as a large crowd can be, this one was sweet and respectful throughout.
There were a few interesting covers — “Seen It All Before” morphed into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (sung in falsetto). Lee broke out a version of “Pony” by Genuine after his own sweaty, swaggering “Won’t let Me Go” — a lush, velvety and over-the-top soul number right on the heels of the gather-around-the mic set. And during the first encore, Lee was joined by opener Drew Holcombe for John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”
The first of two encores also included “Windows are Rolled Down,” which is another one of those songs where Lee manages to create a huge, spacious moment within the must mundane of human experiences: a broken heart. But the song never loses its magical ability to plumb the depths of that anguish and rise from it transformed.
Highways And Clouds
Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight
Seen It All Before / Three Little Birds
(Bob Marley & The Wailers cover)
Night Train (solo)
Arms of a Woman (solo)
Supply and Demand
Tricksters, Hucksters, and Scamps
One Lonely Light
Won’t Let Me Go
Windows Are Rolled Down
Angel From Montgomery (John Prine cover) (with Drew Holcomb)
Brown Sugar (D’angelo cover)