“Live From the Artists Den” by Amos Lee

“Live From the Artists Den” – a PBS program currently in its fifth season – is known for producing select quality recordings of eminent musicians in historic locations across the United States. Previous artists and locations that have been featured by this musical project range from Rufus Wainwright, in The Church of the Ascension, to Death Cab For Cutie in The Brooklyn Museum, to Iron & Wine, in Atlanta’s Historic Buckhead Theatre (known prior to 2010 as The Roxy).

Amos Lee joined this list of artists in the show’s fourth season, and has since released a Live From the Artists Den album, as well as an accompanying DVD. For Artists Den, Lee returned to Tucson, Arizona for a memorable performance in the legendary Fox Theatre. The Fox, built in 1930 and originally used for vaudeville and film, ran for forty continuous years of operation, before it was forced to close due to monetary reasons in 1976. According to the Chairman of the theater, Fletcher McCusker, its restoration project was funded by private citizens in 1999 and was restored and replicated– down to the finishing details. As a result, it has become a popular location in Downtown Tucson, and was the perfect place for Lee’s 19-song concert.

Lee was not alone that night – he was accompanied by local Tucson based band Calexico. An Americana/ Tex-Mex ensemble, Calexico accompanied Lee on numbers like “El Camino” and “Seven Spanish Angels”. The band was not an unplanned selection for the evening – Lee featured them on his latest full-length studio album, Mission Bell, used their Arizona studio to record, and entrusted the production to band member Joey Burns. For Philadelphia born Lee, the Southwestern setting clearly influenced the progression of both Mission Bell and his eventual performance at the Fox. Previously, Lee’s style was a recognizable upbeat folk rock, frequently compared to classic artists like James Taylor. Those not familiar with his body of work might at least recognize “Sweet Pea” – an airy ballad featured on a popular AT&T commercial, which featured a daughter’s communication with her father who traveled often for business.

Live From The Artists Den shows just how clearly the influences of place and artistic company affected Lee’s work. The songs have a very western feel – Lee’s guitar work is brassy and raw. Not only is it simply a western feel – but a wild western one. One that conjures images of cowhands sitting around a fire, strumming on an old guitar. Other numbers channeled the desert atmosphere of the area, like “Windows Rolled Down”. Though simple both lyrically and instrumentally, it is a catchy tune that makes one think of listening to it on a late afternoon during the summer, while actually driving with the windows down. The lap steel guitar – which was featured not only during this song, but many others – really captured this essence, filling in the void that otherwise would make the song feel incomplete.

Of course, Lee performed some older hits of his, like “Supply and Demand” from the 2006 album of the same name. Though he has always had a familiar twang in his voice, Lee’s live performance of “Supply and Demand” seemed more “country” than ever. Though in part because of his surroundings (Lee acknowledged that Tucson has a “very distinct energy”) this change is most likely due to age and time. As Lee’s styles and interests have changed, so has his voice. Though previously in keeping with his very polished, upbeat studio albums, his vocals have now become more mature, deeper, and rougher. These all combine into a more edgy, yet believable sound for the 35 year old artist.

Live At the Artist’s Den is a laid back live showcase of Amos Lee’s musical talent, and effective cooperation with Calexico. Though this may mark a departure from Lee’s previous pop-like tendencies, it clears a wide space for Lee amongst other contemporary folk-rock, singer-songwriters of today.

By Madelyn Reese

If you liked this, check out:
“Guster: Live Acoustic”
“The Lives Inside…” by Matt Pond

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