Amos Lee has always veered between the introspective and explosive, a singer-songwriter who brings elements of country, folk, R&B, soul and gospel into his emotional and observational lyrics and music.
On Tuesday, touring for the first time in three years behind his new album Dreamland, Lee brought all those elements to the fore in a two-hour, 21-song concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Backed by his five-piece band and the National Symphony Orchestra, Lee performed two cathartic sets that detailed his self-described “journey to discovery.”
Opening with hymn-like “Worry No More,” the second track on “Dreamland” and his biggest single in years, Lee set the tone for the evening from the start. He then moved into the funk of “Jesus,” one of five tracks from the evening off 2011’s “Mission Bell,” and then onto the lovely “All You Got is a Song” from 2018’s “My New Moon.”
Like many musicians, Amos Lee has said in interviews promoting Dreamland that he feels like “a different person” than he was before the pandemic. The songwriter turned inward during Covid, a period in which the Philadelphia-based songwriter lost family members and saw his mother diagnosed with cancer.
Now back on the road, he’s found his sense of humor. Noting that he was being “professional” during the first set but would have “some libations” at intermission, at one point, he gave a shout out to his father and bemoaned the fact that he’d gotten him “lousy seats.” And he noted, “Yes, I have a mullet. It’s been a long couple of years y’all.”
“Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” from Lee’s self-titled 2005 debut, segued into three songs with one-word titles — “Spirit,” “Colors” (his first hit), and “Walls” — before a quartet closed out the opening set. Noting his work with the Wounded Warrior Project and visits to injured soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Lee dedicated the soul-searching “Out of the Cold” from “Mission Bell” and a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” to our nation’s servicemen and women. The latter, which featured stirring work from the National Symphony, drew a standing ovation.
“This is the first song I ever did in public,” Lee said before ending the first set with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” his second and final cover of the evening. “It says what it needs to say. I don’t need to talk about it.” Cooke’s Civil Rights-era classic has been covered by so many musicians that it veers into Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah” territory, but it was beautifully handled by Lee and the symphony.
The second set opened with two songs from Dreamland — “Seeing Ghosts” and the title track. Throughout the new album, Lee sings about his lifelong struggles with anxiety, isolation and past trauma, and you could almost see him wrestling with his emotions during these two tracks.
“Crooked” from “My New Moon” was followed by “Violin” and “Flower,” consecutive tracks from “Mission Bell.” (I was thrilled to hear so much from “Mission Bell,” my favorite Lee album, although “Dreamland” may soon overtake it.)
At this point, “Sweet Pea,” the jazzy New Orleans-style track from Lee’s sophomore album, 2006’s “Supply and Demand,” set the stage for another beautiful quartet of songs that closed out the evening.
“Black River,” in my view the strongest cut off Lee’s debut, brought with it a beautiful gospel feel. During the show, he admitted the first album was “a lot of trial-and-error stuff,” but all four songs he played from it on Tuesday are gems. It was followed by “Hang On, Hang On,” another prescient track given the pandemic, that first appeared on “My New Moon.”
“I appreciate you being part of this beautiful evening,” Lee told the audience before introducing his band and giving shout outs to each member. “I’m just feeling very grateful for this moment. Over the last couple of years, something I’ve gotten a lot more in touch with is being grateful for things.”
With that, Lee moved into the final two songs that in some ways bookend the first phase of his career to date — “Arms of a Woman” from his debut album and “Windows Are Rolled Down” from “Mission Bell.” The latter, which featured a lovely intro developed by National Symphony Orchestra conductor Andrew Lipke, brought the evening to a close.
It was, without question, a lovely evening, one that left you with hope and prompting you to look inward. Take, for example, “See the Light,” the next-to-last song of the opening set. It talks about lifting others and finding ways to connect when we’ve all felt so disconnected for so long.
Catch up with Amos Lee here: https://www.amoslee.com
“Even when I lose a winner
Even when I fail to place
When I fall off the map and disappear without a trace
Even when I can’t breathe in
And I’m falling out of line
Everybody ’round me says that everything gonna be alright
See the light
See the light”