21st Century Freedom Songs

“I derive a lot of satisfaction bringing people joy.”

FOTO:: FRISO KOOJIMAN

From West Coast clubs, to Deep South joints, to European festivals, to YouTube, to the podcast universe, the Reverend Shawn Amos’ message of joyful blues is reaching an ever-increasing flock. The Rev’s distinctive blend of black roots music, R & B, and stripped down rock n’ roll brings a bracing, soul-deep musical experience to audiences starved for authenticity, for connection. “I derive a lot of satisfaction bringing people joy,” he says.

His third studio album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, expands that mission. This time out, he spices up the mix with 21st century Freedom Songs, socially conscious soul, a stripped-down cover of Bowie’s “The Jean Genie” that slyly reveals the glam nugget’s blues bones, and an austere version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” that turns the post-punk gem into modern gospel. At the center of James Saez’ (Social Distortion, The Road Kings) no-frills production, the Rev’s voice and harp tie everything together in a stirring, celebratory whole, both beholden to history and refreshingly timely.  “It’s the oddest birth of any album I’ve made,” the Rev says.  “It has a particular depth.”

This sonic evolution is partly the result of over 100 dates in 2016-17, supporting his chart-topping The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You. On the road, the Rev took risks, listened to his heart, and honed his chops. In the midst of that came the seismic election of 2016, and the subsequent altering of the American landscape. All of the above significantly impacted the Rev as a father, citizen, musician, and African-American man, and all of it can be heard on The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down.

“When we toured the South in May of 2017, I could feel things changing post-Trump,” he says. “I was listening to a lot of Staples Singers, especially [acclaimed 1965 LP] Amen. The degree to which I was aware of my race was distracting, striking, hard to ignore. It was powerful being in the South and listening to protest music, to freedom songs conceived to fuel a movement, with no thought toward commercialism.” One can hear the Staples, as well as Curtis Mayfield, in Breaks It Down’s debut single “2017” (video now at 9K+ YouTube views), which calls for unity and compassion in the face of intense division.

“I was listening to a lot of MLK speeches, and reading him,” the Rev says. “I wanted to be immersed in black history, in a resistance movement of the past.” This included recording a moving a cappella rendition of the traditional “Uncle Tom’s Prayer” at the historic Clayburn Temple in Memphis, singing on floorboards where protesters once painted signs for the Civil Rights Movement. After taking his eldest child to the Civil Rights Museum – “to introduce her to her history,” he says – and absorbing Dylan’s 1962 cover of Bukka White’s harrowing “Fixin’ to Die,” the Rev penned and recorded “Does My Life Matter,” a brutally honest, necessary blues, encompassing despair, anger, and grace. The Rev admits, “That song freaked me out a bit. It’s more pointed than anything I’ve ever done.”

 FROM L-R: CHRIS "DOCTOR" ROBERTS, STEVE JORDAN, "THE REV, "LARRY TAYLOR, JAMES SAEZ

FROM L-R: CHRIS "DOCTOR" ROBERTS, STEVE JORDAN, "THE REV, "LARRY TAYLOR, JAMES SAEZ

Serendipity played a role in the creation of The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. When old friend and producer-drummer extraordinaire Steve Jordan (X-Pensive Winos, Neil Young, John Mayer, hundreds more) guested on the jaunty pop-blues “Ain’t Gonna Name Names,” he introduced the Rev to bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits) and drummer Steve Potts (Booker T. & the MG’s), who enliven several cuts. And while passing through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Rev and his stalwart live band decided to tour the illustrious FAME studios. In the 60s, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and many others cut seminal sides at FAME, in a racially inclusive environment unheard-of for its time and place. The tour turned into a four-hour impromptu recording session, yielding “The Jean Genie,” and album opener “Moved,” co-written by longtime sideman, guitarist Chris “Doctor” Roberts.

Prior to his creation of the Reverend persona in 2013, folks knew Shawn Amos as producer (Solomon Burke’s Live in Nashville, and Shout! Factory box set Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones), content creator for companies looking for ways to tell their stories on the internet, and Americana singer-songwriter who’d grown up in a dramatically dysfunctional L.A. home, a story the Rev serialized as Cookies & Milk in the Huffington Post.

By the time he set out to record The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, his life had changed dramatically. For starters, he was a newly single man, a painful development audible in the darker numbers of the Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. The Rev also became Artistic Director of Vibrato Jazz Grill in Los Angeles, owned by longtime friend Herb Alpert, co-founder of the legendary A & M record label.

“It’s a full-circle experience,” the Rev says of the Vibrato gig. As the son of entrepreneur and William Morris agent Wally “Famous” Amos, the Rev says, “I grew up on the A & M lot.” And back in his producer days, the Rev oversaw the reissue of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ catalog, and a remix of the classic Whipped Cream & Other Delights album. At Vibrato, the Reverend Shawn Amos regularly performs, and curates everything from jazz, to Great American Songbook evenings.  

The Rev brings it all back to the people in 2018, supporting The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down with his biggest tour yet, from West Coast, to Europe, to East Coast. With new episodes of his Kitchen Table Blues podcast and webseries to boot, the Rev will be plenty busy sharing the vision, keeping the faith, and spreading the gospel of his joyful blues.

 -Robert Burke Warren, 2018