Amos Lee - Mesa Arts Center - 8/4/2014

It's been six years since Phoenix has seen Amos Lee. With his Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song album climbing the charts, it's only fitting that he plays intimate shows across the country, and last night's Mesa Arts show was intimacy paired with dark sunglasses and Americana flare. It was clear from the moment I entered the venue that this night was going to be spectacular.

The opening band was Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers, but the only reason I knew that was because that's what was stated on the venue's website. They never once addressed who they were during their entire set. Even later, Lee referred to them as "Amy Helm and her band." Helm took center stage with mandolin on the first two songs, and lackluster dance moves on the rest of the set, but her voice packed a punch and delivered what her stage presence lacked.

The "handsome strangers" were a bassist, a drummer, and an acoustic guitar. They sounded like a straight-from-the-south roots-rock version of Grace Potter blended with Sheryl Crow. The third song contained train-like harmonies. The three-part harmony supplied by the Handsome Strangers complements Amy's melodies very well.

Finally, after the fourth song, she reached the mic and said the first words any of us have heard from her: "David Berger, our wonderful drummer," and motioned to him as he was preparing a washboard, which he laid flat on top of his snare and smacked with a spoon and drumstick. As far as the stage presence goes, the guitarist and bassist were dominant as they play back and forth between parts. The guitarist wailed and shredded on his acoustic guitar (not a normal sight to see), while the bassist showed off a jazz-inspired solo. Before singing an old-style hymn, Amy dedicated the tune to loved ones who have passed. The three vocalists of the group gathered around one mic, and sang a fast-paced hymn about going to heaven. Amy's voice is a powerhouse showstopper, and the way she handled the microphone was playful and polite, just as mic technique should be.

Before Amos Lee took the stage, the stage turned black and you could see silhouettes of five band members. Each one began to play, starting with the guitar, then the bass, then the pedal steel, then the organ, then the drummer. And, as each player was musically introduced, a blue light spotlights behind them, and Amos walked across the stage to excited cheers. A spotlight shined on him, and he sang a roaring note that let everyone know just who was in the building. He looked like a modern-day Johnny Cash, taking a page from Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, sporting an all-black attire of dress slacks, a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and sunglasses. The pedal steel player, was impressive as he scientifically played each note with poise.

Amos was sexy and suave; he would trail off on his soulful melodic ramblings and move his shoulders to the groove and throw in a provocative finger to the audience. During one song, the pianist played a jazzy solo, while Andy and Zach, another multi-instrumentalist, played a saxophone duet. The song with the best balance was "Chill in the Air." You could hear every voice being sung, every string being plucked, every tap being struck, blended together in perfect harmony. The band left Lee onstage to channel his inner Otis Redding on "Arms of a Woman." Lee's band, as well as Amy Helm and her band, re-entered after the song ended to sing a song called "Cold, Cold World" with Lee, which featured six-part harmony.

Later, the harmony for "Stranger" sounded like a train-horn, as the drummer plays a "chugga-chugga" sound to give the song its train tracks. He performed three original songs in different styles: A surf rock version of "Truth" which sounded like Kings of Leon, a big, elaborate version of "Cup of Sorrow", and a stunning reggae version of "Black River," which the band weaved from Amos' song into "Three Little Birds" and back to the original. He saved his loudest song for last, which contained the organ player stepping away from keys to play drums with Fred, the drummer.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Amos Lee and Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers at Mesa Arts Center

Random Notebook Dump: My favorite part of Amos Lee's set was his storytelling. He truly is a showman; he played well with the audience. He would stop in between songs and go off on tangents about certain memories.

What's that stench? Lee told a story about his grandmother making fun of his smell ("What smells like onions?" he asks).

Local flavor: He mispronounced "Saguaro." Choice quote of the evening: "What do I call you...'Mesa'? 'The greater Mesa area'? 'Phoenix'? How about I just call you 'Arizona,' is that cool? I'm glad we had this talk.'"

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Mandi Kimes
Contact: Mandi Kimes