Amos Lee at the Michigan Theater: A Dreamland for the Listener

Danielle Ponder sings on the Michigan Theater stage with her bandmates. Photo credit: Nicole Holtzman.

I was twelve years old when Amos Lee’s first Album “Amos Lee” came out with Blue Note Records. 

Before I was born, my dad had been a jazz DJ. I was used to seeing Blue Note CDs lying around the house. I liked some of the older recordings by Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, and I was in love with Norah Jones’ first album Come Away with Me

When my dad brought home Amos Lee’s CD I became obsessed. I lay in front of my dad’s speakers on the floor for days on end, listening and brooding in my hormonal little skin. That album spoke to my teenage self because there was a sadness in it, a seriousness that I liked to think was what adulthood was all about. 

It’s been seventeen years since that first album, and for the first time, I got to see Lee play live at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

Imagine my surprise at seeing a fully grown man with a deeper voice, lighthearted attitude and full band. What was I expecting? Maybe my first image of Lee, a young, sad artist. But that would be like asking Lee to recognize my twelve year old self (we never knew one another, but one can dream). 

Here was Lee: leading a seven person band with a relaxed poise, not a sad kid anymore at all. It makes sense. In the past seventeen years, Lee has come out with seven other albums. He’s toured with artists like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Merle Haggard, and Paul Simon. Now, Amos Lee is headlining his own tours and inviting artists like Jensen McRae, Neal Francis, and Danielle Ponder to join him. 

Danielle Ponder was the opening act for us Ann Arbor folks. I was stunned by Ponder’s rich voice. She could sound like Etta James in the depth of her voice, and then switch to the raspy, edgy voice that Nina Simone often used. 

Lee and his bandmates play on the Michigan Theater stage. Photo credit: Nicole Holtzman.

Ponder sang feel-good songs with lyrics like “the kinkier the hair/ the deeper the roots,” that she dedicated to young Black women. She also sang several break-up songs and a really inspiring song about living for the day. Ponder explained that she was a public defender in New York until age 39, when she got her first record deal.   

From the moment Lee stepped onto stage, I was impressed by his range, breath control, and his Smokey Robinson-like falsetto. 

The songs Lee and his band had range in genre too. They switched between classics like “Arms of a Woman” from Lee’s first album to songs like “Worry No More” from his new album “Dreamland”, which sounded like it could be played in a honky tonk bar, which was a surprise since the recording presents the song more like a folk-rock song. This is a testament to what Lee and his band can do together in the moment. 

They also played Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” in a completely unique arrangement. 

Later, Lee mentioned that he’s working on a Chet Baker tribute album with one of his bandmates, and the band graced us with Baker’s “My Funny Valentine.”   

One gets the impression that Lee picked his bandmates because they are amazing artists but also because some of them, the younger bandmates, are up-and-coming, and maybe they remind Lee a bit of himself when he started out. 

That’s just a guess, but you can see in the way that Lee builds in time to feature his band that he not only respects them, but also wants to help them learn and grow. 

Many times during the show, Lee left space for his bandmates to solo, and to experiment. One of my favorite moments of the concert was when Lee called on his bass player, back-up singer, and organist, Elliott Skinner to sing “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight.” Lee told the audience that every day his band “lights him up,” and that Skinner was going to do us all a favor and light us up. He did just that. It was fascinating and beautiful to see some of Lee’s classic songs being played in new ways by his bandmates. 

I think one sign of a great musician is a person who can change with the times, go with the flow, and elevate others with their music. Amos Lee falls into that category. Check out Amos Lee, his bandmates, and their opener Danielle Ponder out. You won’t be sorry. 

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