The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down
The opening lines and bars suggest a record of mainstream blues but go just a little further and discover a far broader spread of musical styles. The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down does just that; he gives the listener blues, soul, gospel, R&B and full on rock and roll, all with a very immediate 21st century feel. That’s not only the music, his lyrics are equally up to date yet both are deeply rooted in the finest traditions of blues and soul. The Reverend Shawn Amos has a lot to offer so it takes several listens to appreciate it properly.
Before this record I admit to not being familiar with Amos. The Reverend title came only in 2013, before that he was a producer (Solomon Burke), artistic director at the Vibrato JazzGrill in LA, owned by Herb Alpert and an internet content creator. This is his third album which he describes as “21st century freedom songs”. He has a lot to write about, a lot of which deals with the changing face of the United States in the year following the 2016 presidential election.
Amos recorded much of the record on a tour of the south, which connects its contemporary message with longer and deeper struggle.The record opens with ‘Moved’, a haunting coalescence of Amos’s aching voice, bluesy guitar riff and wailing harp. Recorded at the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, it sets the scene and definitely moves the listener into the Reverend’s world. “How long can a man hold it in before he’s moved/Do I follow my heart or give it up/How long before we’re moved?”
Moving on to Memphis, ’2017’ has a faster more soulful pace to which Amos makes very clear the changes already wrought on his country and their dangers, “This is a war waged with thought control/No tanks or planes just thought control/Open up your hearts and brains/ If you want to keep inside the freedom lane”. Yet Amos sings with hope, “We've got to take control of our hearts and brains…Think about what we preach and say/Think about what our children's eyes have seen/In the year 2017”.
Hope dominates in ‘Hold Hands’. More R&B now with a hint of Lee Dorsey, Amos swings along urging us to have faith, lose our fear and stick together. Not much change there.
The ‘Freedom Suite’ of three songs is the album’s peak. These arose from last year’s tour of the south where Amos was sharply reminded of what hasn’t changed. While touring Amos had been reading a lot of Martin Luther King’s speeches. ’Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is well known but here, recorded at the Clayburn Temple in Memphis, Amos sings it a cappella to immense effect.
In ‘Does My Life Matter’ Amos expands on the Bukka White lyrics;
Am I paying for the sins
Of my color or my crime
Will shooting down my body
Really give you peace of mind
The song starts with a menacing strength before building up into a crescendo of rage then finally subsiding, down but by no means out. Hope returns in the third song, ‘Come Together’, an upbeat plea to everyone “No matter what stripes you wear” to “Come together as one family”.
There are two covers; David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ and Nick Lowe’s ‘(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding’. Neither is a highlight and compared to the rest of the album it’s hard to see why either is there. At least the latter gets an interesting gospel makeover.
The record finishes with a bonus track, Leadbelly’s ‘Digging my Potatoes’ which is a perfect way to return to the blues roots at the record’s beginning. By now, that feels a long time ago. The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down is a wonderful discovery that I hope is shared by many.