Amos Lee’s fifth album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song is perhaps, better experienced live.
In his appearance at the Fox Theater in Oakland last week, the Philadelphia native plucked at his Bay Area audience’s heartstrings with a signature brand of acoustically-grounded soul paired with his lesser known, funkier side.
Funk in action however, looks better on Lee than it sounds on the album. The grittiness afforded by spontaneity of a live performance gets lost in post-production. But Lee gave a rousing performance nonetheless, punctuating his newer alt-country material with riffs on his classic soulful hits.
Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song arrives almost a decade after Lee first signed with Blue Note Records in 2005 and released his eponymous 11-track, inaugural album, Amos Lee. The album follows his 2011 release, Mission Bell, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 in the same week it was released. But unlike Mission Bell, Mountains veers south in it’s origin and sound. Recorded in Nashville with the collaboration of various artists like Sugarland, Willie Nelson, the Zac Brown Band, Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, along with instrumentalists, Jerry Douglas, Mickey Raphael, and Jeff Coffin (of the Dave Matthews Band) Mountains is a decidedly different approach from his otherwise solitary singer-songwriter style.
However, it is no less introspective. Some of the best additions are highly personal, even if they deal in the love-lives of others. Nestled in between the country-twang, are true gems, like “Dresser Drawer” which reminisces about the physical remnants from a marriage gone sour.
At the Fox Theater, a solo performance of his 2005 hit, “Arms of a Woman” rolled out early in the show allowing Lee to showcase his best asset—his voice. It is Lee’s uniquely blended mid-tone range that carries his performance with power, intonation and exacting finesse.
And while his classics like “Keep it Loose,” “Arms of a Woman” and “Sweet Pea” still remain some of his best offerings, you could sense in his delivery of that Lee wanted to rush through the obligatory sweet spots, and get back to the funk and grit.
An unexpected, but strangely piquant version of R&B crooner Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You” arrived on the vocal chords of his guitar player, a young, unkempt winsome musician named Zach Djanikian. Lee took command of the chorus, but left the sing-song rap style to the moppy-haired youngster to his left. It was an inventive and unexpected addition to the set, albeit one of his best.
But no matter how hard he tries to jettison the soul-searching melodic songs in favor of an tangy, old-time Americana, Lee will always have penchant for bringing out his listeners’ soft-spot for heart-wrenching sorrow. And he’s no fool to that fact.
Overall, the album—and the tour—reflect a matured outlook on love lost, love found, and the lives lived in between the emotional abyss.
Meanwhile, his Mountains tour will continue to wind its way across the country through early April, in a river of song.