The first time I saw Amos Lee live in concert I was 12 years old. The Philly-based artist and I have both come a long way in the 11 years since then. I’ve watched him at four different Portland venues after almost every album he’s released. His records, while beautiful in their own right, are just bridges between performances for me; he does his best to make every show a spiritual experience for his audience. It’s clear that his music is a spiritual experience for him, too.
On Friday night after his first few songs he said, “I feel stronger about the music than ever after 11 years. Ultimately for me it’s about serving you and sharing these songs with you so that you can go home and feel inspired.” I cannot imagine the last 11 years of my life without Amos’ music. I rue the day that he stops performing.
But for now, I’ll give you a rundown of what happened that Friday night.
Amos and his band played a wide variety of old and new tunes, opening with the upbeat One Lonely Night from the 2016 album Spirit. The show ebbed and flowed, each song building on the next with a few short interludes of Amos’ anecdotes (this time we learned about the woman who inspired Colors (self-titled album 2005), that his mother’s name is Loretta (Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song 2013), and about the 2nd graders he taught in Philly during the day when he was playing every open mic in town back in 2004). In performance, one of the best things about Amos and his band is their ability to improvise (or more likely, to pretend that their very practiced mash-up seems totally new)—Amos’ rich, powerful voice often turns to the rat-a-tat scatting of a seasoned jazz/R&B singer. The second and third songs he played were jazzed-up versions of oldies-but-goodies Bottom of the Barrel and Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight (self-titled album 2005). He played and talked about the new album, but he didn’t over-sell it, and I won’t oversell it here by giving you a song-by-song accounting. The concert was not a radio ad to boost record sales. It was music for the sake of music. Regardless of the mood of the song, Amos bobs his head in a way that causes his whole body to move with the music, he closes his eyes, and he sings—he never screams– every note he lets out is pure music, pure poetry, pure joy.
Every Amos concert I’ve attended has had at least one big surprise cover performance. One year it was John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery. One year it was Bloodhound Gang’s The Bad Touch (with the help of Mutlu). Two years ago it was Frank Ocean’s Think About You. This year the cover was….unfathomably, unpredictably, and yet so typically Amos: Ginuwine’s Pony. It was loud, long, and incredible. Even people who had never heard the original song were out of their seats. What’s interesting is that the driving force behind these covers is always the unique abilities of the opener or a member of Amos’s band; they play these different songs to highlight talent that isn’t Amos. Angel from Montgomery was performed with the whole band around one microphone, emphasizing their harmonizing skills. The Bad Touch was an R&B experimental with Mutlu. Think About You and Pony both featured the gorgeous and unexpected soft falsetto of his second guitarist/sax played. Because, like Amos said at the Schnitz the other night, it’s about bringing people the music. It’s about the art. Nobody ever said it was about Amos.
Twice that night he sang on stage alone, and it was like no one else was in the venue. He played two of his most emotional songs (both in content and in musical quality), Colors and Arms of a Woman (both from the self-titled album, Colors as part of the main set and Arms of a Woman as the first encore). These songs got the loudest applause. It says a lot about the talent of an artist if their original work remains relevant, remains popular, remains evocative, even so many years later. That all being said, listening to Amos Lee over a period of 11 years has taught me that in his presence, whether it’s in the audience at the Oregon Zoo stage, or a more private concert blasting from my portable Bluetooth speaker, real art is just a breath away, in his spirit, in the spirit his music awakens in you.