If you’ve been listening to the radio for the last 15 years, there is a good chance that you’re familiar with Amos Lee’s hit song “Sweet Pea.” “Sweet Pea” alone is a feat in pop songwriting: It’s happy, but carries with it a tinge of blues that colors the tune soulfully, making the track more profound and caring than most sweet love songs can be. Before last week, that’s really all I was aware of in his discography, but boy, I was in for a surprise. The 2006 single is just a glimpse into what Lee can really do, as he’s made a name for himself in songwriting and soul in the last 13 years of music. His newest record, My New Moon, is the culmination of those years in one shining record, a work that weaves classic romance, grit and soul together in one varied pattern. This comes through in his live performances, too ― on Tuesday, Lee’s signature soulful charm made its way to the Michigan Theater for a memorable performance in our own Ann Arbor.
Right off the bat, the audience could bet on the night being a good one ― Lee’s opening act Ethan Gruska began the show with a collection of songs off of his first record Slowmotionary. It makes sense that Gruska was chosen to travel with Lee across North America for this tour, as they both have a similar aura of wistful storytelling about them. Gruska’s set was heavy on guitar and piano and primed the audience for what would be a two-hour journey through Amos Lee’s memory and heart. After a brief intermission, the packed house rose to their feet for Lee’s first song, a performance of My New Moon standout “All You Got Is A Song.” The bass blared, and Lee’s warm vocals filled the theater easily and beautifully, setting himself and his band up for the night ahead.
For the next two hours, Lee made the nearly-sold-out Michigan Theater into his living room, as comfortable on stage as he would be talking to an old friend. The musician was clearly close with all of his bandmates, and even shared the spotlight with a few of them, creating features on songs like “Spirit” and “Arms of a Woman.” Through this and Lee’s funny banter, the show took on a life of its own, behaving more like a jam session between friends than a polished performance. This isn’t to say that Lee is less than a consummate performer, though ― it was his ease and style on stage that made its homey vibe possible in the first place. He glided in and out of vocal riffs as if they were as easy as breathing, floating between high-tempo jams and emotional ballads without a hitch. My first impression of Lee was that of a man who had been playing music his whole life, and wanted everyone else to feel how much he loved it, too.
More than anything, Lee’s performance was a place for him to share how life’s tragedies (the death of his grandparents, the end of a relationship) and joys (new love, finding your groove in this world) can make great art. His anecdotes and jokes between songs carried as much weight as the songs themselves, often letting the audience in on the stories behind them. Through Lee’s showmanship, the audience was able to understand how music can color life and allow one to get through it at the same time ― in Amos Lee’s darkest times, it was music that gave him joy, and when he was joyful, it was music that helped him to spread his happiness to others, creating a patchwork of emotion and beauty all present in his incomparable voice.