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September 17, 2014

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Review: Amos Lee at Smith Center — Philly singer-songwriter … and lady-killing soul man?

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Harper Lee

Amos Lee.

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Amos Lee.

Amos Lee: soul-baring singer-songwriter or smooth-talking lover man? On Tuesday night at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the answer was both.

Yes, that was Philly-born Lee, the man behind low-key gems such as “Arms of a Woman” and “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” doing his best Teddy Pendergrass on the “Love TKO” sound-alike “Won’t Let Me Go” — the most pleasant surprise in a show full of them.

Forgive yourself if you pegged Lee as a coffeehouse act gone big time. His most popular work would not sound out of place in a Starbucks, and his association with Blue Note Records, which has produced all five of his albums since 2005, doesn’t exactly carry the edge it did when Jackie McLean was squonking hard bop classics for the label in the mid-’60s.

But Lee is a savvy performer who knows how to wring the most out of his laid-back repertoire. His band members switch instruments. He rearranges the staging. He drops in well-placed covers out of nowhere. He works the crowd.

He handles them, too, and there were more than a few yahoos taking advantage of the Smith Center’s friendly acoustics. (When will audiences realize that a concert is not a one-on-one conversation with the artist?)

Entertaining anecdotes helped keep the mood light, even when the songs weren’t. He balanced the sedate “Dresser Drawer” by telling a funny sucks-to-be-him story of the song’s inspiration, his buddy Johnny.

Later, he prefaced “Jesus” by reminiscing about his bourbon-loving grandfather. He even lobbed an observant dig at our comp culture: “Vegas is the only town where I’m like, ‘Did these people pay for their tickets?’”

Lee’s multitasking five-piece band made it so the live songs never lost the fullness of their studio versions. Indeed, his live band is the same group who recorded “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,” for which his current tour is named.

Zach Djanikian rotated among electric guitar, mandolin, banjo and baritone sax and shared backing vocal duties with bassist Annie Clements. Pedal steel player Andy Keenan doubled on sax, banjo, dobro and guitar, and keyboardist Jaron Olevsky played an accordion for a run of songs with all six musicians, including drummer Fred Berman, gathered around a pair of mics at center stage.

But if there’s a lasting memory of Lee’s performance, it was his outside-the-box turn as lady-killing soul man. I’m not sure how many babies have been conceived to “Won’t Let Me Go” over the years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few audience members went home and made a late-night iTunes purchase.

After all, the money they would’ve spent on Amos Lee tickets has to go somewhere.

Tuesday night’s setlist: “Windows Are Rolled Down,” “Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps,” “Bottom of the Barrel,” “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” “Chill in the Air,” “Dresser Drawer,” “Arms of a Woman” (solo), “Charles St.” (solo), “Supply and Demand,” “Jesus,” “Colors,” “Fat Bottomed Girls” (Queen cover) and “The Man Who Wants You.”

Also, “Won’t Let Me Go”/“Thinkin Bout You” (Frank Ocean cover), “Sweet Pea,” “Scared Money” and “Street Corner Preacher.” Encore: “Southern Girl” (with “A Long Walk” and “Brown Sugar” tags) and “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men cover).

Philly-born Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine. He didn’t have a chance to repeatedly call out for his favorite Amos Lee song; it was played first.

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