AJ Lee has been writing and performing music since she was a kid. Steeped in bluegrass, she’d always had a particular fondness for acoustic music.
By the time she assembled AJ Lee and Blue Summit in 2015, which was based out of Santa Cruz at the time, she and her band were broadening their influences to also include blues, folk-rock, soul and jazz. Their 2019 debut album Like I Used To showcases this, and even incorporates some rock instrumentation not part of the live band.
“We didn’t have a full-time fiddle player. We had some electric guitar on a few tracks. We were thinking maybe we could add electric guitar to live shows. Maybe we could have a drummer part-time,” Lee says. “I still really like the old album. It’s just such a different sound.”
With the members now spread out all over the Bay Area, the group is releasing its sophomore album I’ll Come Back, which they’ll showcase at Felton Music Hall on Saturday, Oct. 30. While it is experimental in parts, the new record is very much a return to Lee’s acoustic, bluegrass roots. Many of its songs were written by Lee back when she was 15 years old, and have never been released.
Fiddle player Jan Purat accompanied the band on one song for Like I Used To, and joined the band full time shortly after.
“When Jan joined the band, it was like a no-brainer. We should do what we do best, which is acoustic music. We’ve all been playing it for years,” Lee says. “With the fiddle, not saying it pinpoints to one genre over another, but it was just like, ‘This feels right. We should do this more.’”
Having the bluegrass elements more prominently on display has brought out the improvisational elements of the group.
“It’s always fun playing these songs, especially when you play them as much as we do on tour. Sometimes maybe 10 days in a row you’ll be playing the same song, but it’s always fun to play because of the bluegrass influence. We like improvising and freshening things up, making it interesting not just for the audience, but for ourselves as well,” Lee says.
Going into 2020, the group had momentum as a touring act until the pandemic hit. They stayed engaged with their fanbase by doing virtual “Sofa Sessions” concerts. And the audience they built online seems to have translated to the post-Covid touring world—on a recent East Coast tour, they sold out several shows.
“With the livestreams, me, Sully and Jesse, almost every Sunday or Monday would stream about an hour, just kind of jamming. Going through a bluegrass jam book and interacting with fans,” Lee says. “We’re really happy that we have lots of dedicated fans all over.”
When they got together in January to track I’ll Come Back, the challenge was to make sure they could pull off everything on the album live. For instance, the title track opens with a weird looping, almost psychedelic sound effect, which blends nicely with the roots elements of the song—and it can be done at their shows.
“We’re trying to experiment with the limits of what we can do with our acoustic instruments,” Lee says. “I think it gives the acoustic sound a cooler feel. The thing that we’re doing with the new album is a true organic sound, so if you listen to the album, you know you’re going to get basically the same thing at the live show.”
AJ Lee and Blue Summit performs at 8pm on Saturday, Oct 30 at Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton, $20. 831-704-7113.