“I was questioning what suffering was,” Amber Mark said to the crowd at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. “What is life, what is the meaning of life — I could go on and on — but I need to be here for three more hours and smoke a lot of weed to get into it, and this is not a Ted Talk.”
It was a heavy introduction for the smooth R&B of “What It Is,” a song from her recently released debut album, “Three Dimensions Deep,” but such is the multiplicity of Mark, whose live set found her exploring a melange of genres and vocal styles.
Bathed in blood-red lighting and dancing so energetically that her mic pack came loose, Mark was in full form as she sang about “a feeling so strange / the way time never stays the same.” Her voice was in top gear, not once wavering as she climbed the scale from her signature raspy alto register to a softer, high-pitched falsetto. Although Mark’s music orbits an R&B planet, her influences, from hip-hop to bossa nova and rock, could be identified at various points throughout her set, for which she was accompanied by a four-piece band.
But beyond her more existential fare, Mark’s sense of humor was also on full display, most notably during her unironically excellent cover of Sisqó’s “Thong Song,” which has more than 5.5 million streams on Spotify. After her final command to “show me that thong,” the lights faded to black, and Mark chuckled lightly before saying, “Yes y’all, that really just happened.”
She then transitioned into one of her most popular singles, 2019’s “Mixer,” a traditional R&B banger about throwing caution to the wind for a man she refers to as ”a mixer whippin’ that cream.” But the twist arrived halfway through, when the song shifted gears into a double-time house remix that included a sample of Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman,” in yet another display of Mark’s versatility.
She kept the crowd moving throughout the set, moving from her upbeat club hit “Bubbles” to the angstier “Lose My Cool,” but dropped down the energy level for an emotional performance of “Monsoon,” a tribute to her late mother from her 2017 EP “3:33am.” As soon as she announced it, a hush fell over the crowd.
“This will probably forever be the most meaningful song I’ve ever put out,” Mark said. “I dedicate this song to anyone who’s ever lost anyone in their life.”
Mark has openly discussed her mother Mia’s 2013 death as an everlasting influence in her work, and many of her songs nod to her. “I just want you proud of me up above,” she sang in the fourth song of her set, “One.” On “Monsoon,” however, she sings much more directly about the pain of her loss: “Never thought that there would be an ending / Thought the love was strong enough to make you stay / If it was, if it was / You’d be here, you’d be here.” After soaking up the audience’s applause, she said, “I feel her, I know she’s here,” before moving on to the next song.
Indeed, Mark never lingered too long on one moment, largely due to the expansiveness of her repertoire. The crowd, too, seemed to move forward with her, building up to her penultimate number, “Competition,” which featured a raucous call and response of the line “Damn, I really made it!” Judging by the crowd’s reaction, she may well have.
Here is Amber Mark’s setlist:
“On & On”
“Lose My Cool”
“What It Is”
“Love Me Right”