Lee is not so much an enigma (he's open about much of his life) as much as a phenomenal amalgam born out of reverence for idols such as John Prine, Bill Withers, Al Green and Willy Nelson. Perhaps because he sings with such soul and such rhythm, many interviewers have tried to pin him down, asking specifically about his race, to which he has repeatedly simply replied as "mixed."
Amos Lee and his entourage is indeed a mixed and wondrous bag. At the Sheldon Concert Hall on Wednesday night -- for a Sheldon Sessions presented by KDHX -- we were treated with a two-saxophone horn section doubling as the mandolin player and a steel guitarist. This flexibility gives Amos Lee's songs a protean quality on stage that's new and unique to even his more ardent fans.
The Sheldon nurtured that sound with the mother of all acoustics, while allowing for an intimacy that encouraged a back-and-forth banter between Amos and his fans, and more than one great story of love and loss and eventual creation throughout the night.
The set began with "Windows Are Rolled Down," a song with a signature Amos Lee refrain of major chords that invokes a concrete reality to its actual general theme: "Corn rows have companion feel/This rocky road, this steering wheel." "Tricksters, Hucksters and Scams" eulogizes the con man in a Depression-era, gut-bucket style while the "Bottom of the Barrel," a 2005 track from his eponymous album, has been reinvented in the manner of an R&B classic with gospel choir. These reinventions may not mean much to the newcomer, but to anyone who has followed Amos Lee from before his "discovery" by Noah Jones to now, the songs are classics made even more classic.
Take "Supply and Demand," the anchor song of his 2006 follow-up album. After telling a story involving Alison Krauss and Sarah Jarosz, he introduced the song as a tribute to that moment and that sound when he sang with them. By reworking the song, he reinvented it. Reinvention and reuse go hand in hand, so the covers the band played -- a funky rendition of Freddy Mercury's "Fat Bottom Girls" and a folksy version of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" were new as well. So too were many other songs that night, carried on by his ever-present carriage of cool. Lee turned from folky ballads to sexually charged bluesy R&B channeling D'Angelo and Usher with a touch of Bill Withers class. Clearly there was sex behind these songs to begin with, but live in 2014, Lee was dripping with it, bedroom eyes and rhythmic sway included. So much so that there were audible swoons when he removed his vest, unbuttoned his shirt and led the encore with another reimagined "classic." Oh how intonation and some saxophone transformed "Southern Girl" on this night at the Sheldon.
Of course, this is how it should be. An artist has a duty to keep his art relevant, either by invention or continual reinvention. Amos Lee is such an artist. While some have tried to pigeonhole him, perhaps even putting his ethnicity before his talent, he remains a performer who pushes the limits of whatever performance space he's dabbling in.
For those that see him as the ultimate crossover artist, I can only ask aloud, "Cross-over to what and from what?" For me, he's a cut above all those other crossover kings and queens, simply because he remains novel with his own songs and diverse in all the best ways.