Review: AJ Lee & Blue Summit w/ Two Runner

The roots of Americana were running deep on Wednesday night at The State Room. AJ Lee & Blue Summit’s working-class symphony turned Salt Lake city’s finest music venue into a dance hall and listening room. Black tie not required. 

The Bay Area quintet blissfully fused bluegrass, country, and folk into orchestral harmony. They opened their 16-song set with AJ Lee taking the spotlight on “Hillside,” a yet-to-be-released song from an upcoming new record. Guitarist Scott Gates covered Cadillac Sky’s “Wish I Could Say I Was Drinking” and Sullivan Tuttle nodded to Bob Willis with his version of “Who Walks in When I Walk Out.” 

Lee took the reins once again and graced us with her award-winning vocal magic on her original compositions “Faithful” and “To Mine.” Gates messed with my mind when he started playing a familiar country waltz. The four-step melody was pretty standard in 1950s and ‘60s country dance tunes. But when he started singing non-country lyrics, which I knew word-for-word, my brain couldn’t reconcile it. My wife, sensing my confusion, whispered “It’s ‘I’m a Believer’ by the Monkees.” Boom! [insert head exploding emoji.] AJ Lee & Blue Summit transformed the ‘60s pop classic into a country waltz. Very innovative! They really should record their uniquely wonderful rendition. 

Fun Fact: Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for his 1967 album, but the Monkees’ recorded it in late 1966 and it became a worldwide smash hit single for them and eclipsed Diamond’s original version. Diamond later said he was happy to share in the royalties from the Monkees’ success.

The set included plenty of Lee originals to go with some well-chosen covers. I particularly liked “Something Special” and “Still Love You Still.” Lee can really pen a beautiful folk love song and arrange it with a mandolin-forward sound. She then brings in fiddle, acoustic guitars, and upright bass to pack it with emotion. Her “Lemons and Tangerines” stood out as a jazzy torch song that took us on a fun journey to her backyard in San Jose. Gates’ “Bakersfield Clay” is another hidden gem not yet featured on an AJ Lee & Blue Summit record. 

As we rounded the final turn toward the finish line they played “When You Change Your Mind” and ended with the driving tempo (like a train rolling down the track) on Gillian Welch’s “Down Along The Dixie Line.” The crowd demanded an encore and got a stellar rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” 

I love AJ Lee’s recorded version of “Harvest Moon” with The Brothers Comatose. Her delightfully crisp vocals and mandolin strumming really adds value to an already amazing song. Just hearing her play it live was worth the price of admission. 

Two Runner opened the blissful evening of great music with “Wild Dream” from their solid debut album Modern Cowboy. Fresh off a stint at the Moab Folk Festival, the Northern California mountain music duo of Emilie Rose on fiddle and vocals and Paige Anderson on vocals, banjo, and acoustic guitar, added upright bass player Sean Newman to their show. Their 9-song set included their YouTube video song contest winner, “Run Souls” and the not-yet-released “Late Dinner.” They also beta-tested a new song without a title. I like being a test subject in this kind of musical experiment. Rose and Anderson’s voices harmonized perfectly. The fiddle, guitar, banjo, and upright bass added depth. For their finale, they played “Where Did You Go,” the last track on their album. Their set ended much too quickly.

As is often the case when walking home from The State Room, I wondered how we got so lucky to see world-class artists in an intimate Salt Lake City music venue and then get to mingle with them after the show. It’s like a VIP experience every time we go.

Who: AJ Lee & Blue Summit w/ Two Runner

What: California Bluegrass

Where: The State Room

When: Wednesday, November 8, 2023 


John Nelson
John Nelson
John Nelson covers the local music scene for Salt Lake magazine. He is a 20-year veteran of Uncle Sam’s Flying Circus with a lifelong addiction to American roots music, live music venues, craft beer and baseball.

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