Amos Lee unleashed his inner soul man at the Uptown Theater on Wednesday. An audience of about 1,200 heard the singer-songwriter from Philadelphia accentuate the R&B that has been a subtle part of his recorded output since his first release for Blue Note Records in 2014.
While Lee and his rangy six-piece backing band touched on a variety styles in an outing that lasted more than two hours, the best moments were rooted in soul music.
Lee’s most popular work recalls the 1970s output of singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens. Empowered with a shape-shifting voice that soared with rapturous innocence on gospel material and growled seductively on come-hither love songs, Lee often evoked the soul icon Al Green on Wednesday.
Affectionate covers of two Philadelphia soul classics — Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile” and Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” — reflected Lee’s intent. He dedicated “Spirit,” the New Orleans-themed title track of his most recent album, to “all the people who love what they do for no good reason.” The understated funk jam also acted as a love letter to the city’s rich musical legacy.
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Lee quoted Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in a solo acoustic reading of “All My Friends.” The hushed “Baby I Want You,” one of three songs he delivered as he and his band huddled around a single microphone, featured lush doo-wop harmonies. An interpretation of the marijuana-oriented “Vaporize” wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by the Kansas City rapper Tech N9ne.
A few members of the band were multi-instrumentalists. Their versatility added a shifting array of textures. Earthy mandolin and organ solos grounded the swanky gospel of “Jesus.” A forlorn dobro solo underscored the bitter heartbreak of “Chill in the Air.” The group displayed the loose-limbed spontaneity of a jam band on “Cup of Sorrow.” “Flower,” a winsome folk-rock song, was powered by a pedal steel guitar.
During his introduction to his 2005 breakout hit “Arms of a Woman,” Lee recalled an incident that altered the course of his life. As a novice second grade teacher in Philadelphia, he took his wards on a trip to the bathroom.
“I lost all of them,” he said.
The mishap led to Lee’s decision to pursue a career in music. Lee may not have been an effective teacher of children, but Wednesday’s show proved that he’s become a compellingly mature soul artist.
Amos Lee set list
Highways And Clouds; Jesus; Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight; Cup of Sorrow; Spirit; Seen It All Before; Chill in the Air; Black River; All My Friends; Arms of a Woman; Supply and Demand; Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps; Baby I Want You; New Love; Sara Smile; Pony; Vaporize; Violin; Walls; Flower; Windows Are Rolled Down; Night Train; End of the Road