Amos Lee’s voice is a truly magnificent instrument, evoking the likes of Bill Withers, John Fogerty, James Taylor and, best of all, Sam Cooke.
And his folksy blues/soul
sound is slicker than a Roger Federer backhand. No wonder Adele, who Lee has
supported, is such a huge fan (“I think he’s truly amazing") and he’s been
endorsed by and has supported luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Elvis
The 33-year singer-songwriter from Philadelphia is huge in the US, but less so here. However, Shepherd’s Bush Empire is heaving to witness the slightly unkempt (he looks like a cross between Oliver Reed and Seth Rogen) singer-songwriter. Yet, for the all whoops and hollers (and there are many) and some splendid musicianship from Lee’s seven-strong band, a lot of his polished, obviously accomplished material simply fails to stir the blood. It’s the sort of smooth, unobtrusive sound that could easily grace any polite radio station, and put a small infant to sleep in the back of your car. At one point we’re regaled with the hokey tale of an old woman, Dora, who was initially resistant to Lee singing outside her hospital room, before emerging from her chair and starting to dance. “We try to service all your musical needs,” he adds. Aw-shucks. Lee deals in heartbreak, God and not wanting to be alone. We hear you, Amos.
He’s not an ornery lyricist and character like the wonderful, country-soaked Bonnie Prince Billy or as cross and moving as California’s Cass McCombs. Lee is essentially a more commercial beast and it’s unsurprising his latest record, Mission Bell, bagged the No 1 spot in the US. The record, produced by Calexico’s Joey Burns, is Lee’s most cohesive and impressive yet. The previous three, all released on Blue Note Records, are slightly messier affairs, although they all feature some fetching tracks; most notably the sumptuous lament “Careless” (from Supply and Demand), which is a highlight tonight, and the suitably honeyed “Sweet Pea”, another highlight. It’s also refreshing when Lee and his band start beefing it up, tearing into the spiritual anthem “Jesus” like it’s a Lafayette hoedown. Yeehaw.
However, best of all, are the three standout numbers from the new album, the infectious Stateside hits “Flower” and “Windows Are Rolled Down”, and his best song to date, the exquisite, rambling lament “El Camino”, a song reprised on the album with Willie Nelson adding his distinctive vocals. No Nelson tonight, unfortunately, to add some true grit.