Amos Lee performs at Taft Theatre in Cincinnati
By Alan Sculley
Photo: Amos Lee performs at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati March 7
Amos Lee has seen his career take a welcome step forward with his two most recent albums, 2011’s Mission Bell and his fifth studio album, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, which was released last fall.
Mission Bell debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and produced a hit single, “Windows are Rolled Down.” The latest album debuted at No. 16 on Billboard’s all-genre album chart, hit No. 7 on the rock album chart and remains in the top five on the Americana Music Association album chart four months after its release.
Howerver, Lee doesn’t sound like someone who dwells on chart numbers or album sales statistics. When asked about his success, his thoughts quickly turned to others who helped make things happen.
“It makes me incredibly grateful for the fans I have,” Lee said. “It also takes me to the people who work on my team, like management, agents, all the folks – label people. There are so many people that get their hands dirty working these records and trying to help to dig a foundation and keep it solid and build it up from the ground. I’ve been with a lot of the same people from the beginning. So it means a lot to me to have people on my side to share these things with. To me, it’s as much about sharing these moments as it is about having them.”
In fact, for Lee, making music is about the songs, and, more to the point, what they mean to people who experience them. He sees each album as a chance to renew his relationship with fans and part of a bigger overall objective.
“For me, the larger picture is about catalog,” Lee said. “It’s about creating a list of songs you can rely on every night to go into a show with and go, ‘I feel great about these songs.’”
Lee is well on his way to developing the kind of large and formidable song catalog that will enable him to draw fans to his shows for many years to come. He made a big initial splash when his 2005 self-titled debut album caught on commercially, selling nearly 500,000 copies. Tours followed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Merle Haggard.
His next two albums, Supply and Demand and Last Days at the Lodge, were well received, but they didn’t match the impressive sales of his first album. Still, Lee was able to solidify his career, and when he turned his attention to Mission Bell, he was ready to try something new.
For that album, he brought in Joey Burns of the band Calexico to produce and had other members of the group play on the album.
With Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, Lee was ready to change up the recording experience once again. This time, he brought in his touring band to play on the album, worked with a new producer in Jay Joyce and used a different studio – Joyce’s newly constructed studio in Nashville.
This change fit with Lee’s overall desire to make recording an album a unique experience shared with a certain group of collaborators.
“For me it’s about experiencing that moment, whatever that moment is and appreciating it and respecting it for what it is,” Lee said.
The efforts of all involved produced impressive results.
Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song finds Lee once again showing his talent for writing spare, acoustic-centered songs with strong melodies and affecting lyrics (“Johnson Blvd.,” “Still In The Air” and “Dresser Drawer”). Lee also broadens his musical range with several songs that considerably beef up his sound. “High Water” is a prime example. Its big beat, distorted vocals and electronic touches are something different for Lee, and the treatment works well on this bluesy song. “Stranger,” meanwhile, combines a bit of bluegrass with rock and some big gang vocal parts. “The Man Who Wants You” is a tangy, rootsy rocker with a soulful edge and vibrant feel.
Lee said it’s been fun and challenging to create a song set that incorporates new material and has a good flow for the audience.
“I think the basic idea I try to put into the set is to build it to make a shape, try to build a shape for the night,” he said. “And I think some of the [new] songs really translate well live; and other songs, we’re still working on and trying to get the right way for them to fit with everything else so there’s not much overlap between songs and between sections in the set where there’s like a lull or a moment where maybe we’re not as engaged as others. So, I try to keep it fun and ever-changing, not only for the crowd, but for the band because the more that we keep it fresh for ourselves, the more inspired we are.”
Amos Lee will play Friday, March 7, at the Taft Theatre, 315 E. 5th St. in Cincinnati. Doors at 7 p.m. For more information please visit amoslee.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.