By: Blythe Penn
The day of Amos Lee’s show at Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series was typical of Salt Lake City at the end of summer. The searing desert sun thoroughly baked the concrete urban sprawl and was beginning to set as I caught a ride with a pedicab from the end of the venue parking lot to the entrance gates. The quick trip made light of my late arrival and I met my first friend of the night. (Thanks Carlos!)
Inside the gates, the main lawn was packed with cooler clad attendees in low backed lawn chairs. The atmosphere was family-friendly, though audience mostly consisted of middle-aged attendees. People in the audience cheerfully visited with friends and couples strolled the paved perimeter hand-in-hand.
Opening act Madison Cunningham was already on stage when I arrived. Her voice and indie rock band immediately caught my attention. Cunningham’s breathy vocals are familiar, reminiscent of Fiest and other contemporary female singer/ songwriters, though her soulful range and guitar chops keep it interesting. Although young, she is an accomplished musician, both solo and with a band. For the last song of her set, she was alone with her guitar and swept the audience into a trance before leaving the stage.
In between bands, I spoke with audience members in the first row, several of whom were sporting Amos Lee t-shirts and sharing stories from the previous concerts. I was unfamiliar with anything Amos Lee produced since his 2005 self-titled album, so I wasn’t prepared for the powerful gospel-jam that was coming my way, bringing me to tears at times. Lee’s lyrical themes of human imperfection, change, and relationship (on a scale both personal and infinite) resonated with me. By the end of the day, I understood why so many fans connect with his music.
Dusk turned to night when Amos Lee’s band began to take the stage. The crowd cheered, then became uproarious when Lee appeared. He was positive, upbeat, and told the crowd how good he felt throughout the whole set. “This is such a blessing. Feeling so loved right now,” he said at one point.
Lee played songs from his 2018 release, My New Moon, as well as long-time favorites. During the second song “All You Got Is A Song,” he encouraged the crowd to dance, even if they stayed in their chairs, offering that “Sexy Lake City,” as he called us, could become an R&B capital if we clapped along. The audience responded with cheers, clapping, and dancing. Women with children on their shoulders and other audience members congregated at the side of the stage for the Amos Lee sermon.
After a few rousing songs with the full band, Lee performed acoustic versions of “Crooked” and “Wait Up For Me,” before calling the band back for “Spirit.” The New Orleans inspired tune roused the crowd. Instrumentally and vocally, this was a standout song for me. The band was in full swing. Piano, organ, pedal steel, drums, bass, and electric guitar filled the air. “I just want to feel the spirit,” Lee sang to an audience surely familiar with what that may mean. The band jammed on, and it felt like church was in session. After an incredible note-bending guitar solo, “Spirit” evolved into George Michael’s “Faith,” played in half time with a touch of the blues, sung by bassist Jay White. This was the first of several musical mash-ups of the night. (“Louisville” turned into “Learn to Fly” by Tom Petty, “Flower,” riffed with “Ooh Child,” and lyrics from “High and Dry,” “Doin It,” as well as other songs found their way into the set.) Another crowd favorite was Lee’s acoustic rendition of “Violin.” The audience cheered with recognition and swayed to the somber wandering of the song. Before he continued with an acoustic “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” he commented, “If this is a Thursday night in Utah, I’m afraid to see you on a Friday!”
Lee remarked he saw lots of people having a good time, and others reading on their phones. Audience members let him know a big game was on that night—Utah’s “Holy War” in football. By 9:30 pm, an intermittent stream of guests headed out, many sporting University of Utah gear, perhaps headed back home to catch the end of the game. The end of the set consisted of “Louisville,” “Flower” then “No More Darkness, No More Light,” which he wrote for the students of Parkland, Florida. I was surprised to hear a hopeful uplifting melody rather than a somber memorial.
They ended their set with a Grateful Dead cover. An assistant hastily brought the printed lyrics to Lee on stage, and the band launched into the song. It felt like a party as the band played on and the crowd kept dancing. They wrapped the night with an encore, playing “Night Train” and “Windows Are Rolled Down”.
By the time I left Red Butte, the power and joy of music was clear. Lee said himself, “Every time I come to Red Butte, it’s a special night,” which reflects how I— and many Utahns—feel about the grassy venue nestled on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley.