Saturday, January 29, 2011

Diverse Amos Lee set thrills sold-out crowd in Anaheim

Photo courtesy of Kelly Swift

Please note this review was first published on the Orange County Register's Soundcheck blog earlier today

Having just released one of the first great albums of 2011 — Mission Bell, his fourth for venerable jazz/folks/etc. label Blue Note — Amos Lee was clearly in a mood to celebrate throughout his 19-song concert Friday night (Jan. 28, 2011) at House of Blues Anaheim.

It’s been a busy week for the Philadelphia native: he arrived at the Downtown Disney venue on the heels of appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres Show, as well as concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco and the Music Box in Hollywood.

Many artists will choose to open a show with an upbeat (or at least uptempo) number to kick things into high gear from the get-go, but Lee went the opposite route, launching his 105-minute set with the introspective folk-rock of “El Camino.” A beautiful song, it proved to be typical of the subsequent material only in that Lee offered up one song after another, each its own musical world with little relation to others positioned around it.

With the possible exception of the Zac Brown Band, few modern-day success stories seem able to blend so many styles together so effortlessly. Throughout his wide-ranging journey Friday night, Lee and his strong backup band explored folk, rock, soul, gospel, alt-country, blues, funk and even a bit of jazz without losing their way.

Lee’s soulful vocals were certainly spotlighted, conjuring the spirit of Al Green on “Flower” and Gram Parsons on “Violin,” the latter enhanced by Andy Keenan‘s pedal steel work. But elsewhere his voice and material (whether on acoustic or electric guitar) were so distinctive, they both defied easy categorization.

An Americana-infused performance of “Cup of Sorrow,” the piano-anchored “Careless” (boasting some of his most emotive singing of the night), a quiet version of “Sweet Pea” and the jazz-tinged “Hello Again” showcased the winning ways his five-member band and two backing singers have with Lee’s songs. His joyful version of “Street Corner Preacher,” meanwhile, was propelled by a spontaneous clap-along from the large crowd, and his new single “Windows Are Rolled Down” was equally charged.

Although only in his early 30s, Lee is already a treasure; rare are artists who can blend Philly soul, alt-country linked with the Southwest, the California folk of the ’70s and Southern gospel (as evidenced by the uplifting “Jesus” during the encore). He handles so many styles so well, what’s not to love about his music?

South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela also delighted the capacity crowd with a 35-minute set of original work melding folk and exotic world-music influences. Alternating between songs in English and his native language (introducing “Woza,” he noted: “Don’t try to say that; you’ll break your tongue”), Mahlasela, known as “The Voice” at home, delivered several wonderful songs off his new release Say Africa, which dropped Jan. 18.

His joyous approach easily filled the Mouse House, while songs such as “Conjecture of the Heart” had lyrical depth to further lure listeners into his unique approach. I only wish that a few rude concert-goers behind me during his marvelous set would have taken their senseless chatter to the patio.

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