AM & Shawn Lee: The Not-Inconsiderable Pleasures of Session-Man Funk
by Dave Segal
on Mon, Sep 3, 2012 at 11:57 AM
Trucking over from Fisher Green to the Promenade, I arrived 15 minutes into AM & Shawn Lee’s set. They had just launched into a killer space-funk jam whose analog-synth wail recalled Quincy Jones’ “Ironside”—with the bonus of mucho cowbell. Little did I know, this would be the peak of their set.
Don’t get me wrong: AM & Shawn Lee are quite good; all four men onstage are superb players, and Lee can excel on any instrument you hand him—probably even a didgeridoo. But for my money, Shawn Lee is best on his trillion other albums where vocals aren’t present or emphasized: hear especially this year’s Synthesizers in Space and Reel to Reel by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, and 2011’s Tabla Rock by Shawn Lee’s Incredible Tabla Band, a cover of the entire Bongo Rock LP by Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band… substituting tablas for bongos. So now you know my biases.
With AM, an earnest, innocent-sounding, grit-free white boy not unlike Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue in vocal timbre, Lee has written some of his most accessible material on their Celestial Electric album. KEXP has been caning “Darkness & Light,” a heroic slice of anthemic pop funk. AM announced before they did the song, “With a crowd this beautiful and large, I insist on a sing-along,” thus combining two of my least favorite things about live performance: pandering and crowd participation.
Most of the set—save for that one where Lee lifts the bass line from Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng” and the one that uses the musical foundation from Lee’s “Psychedelic Samba” 7-inch (thanks, Valerie)—was heavy on lightweight, pleasant, impeccably executed funk pop—like INXS if they consisted of session men with greater innate rhythmic skill. Here’s hoping Lee will return soon, with his Incredible Tabla Band.