“I want to bring the ancestors into the room,” says The Reverend Shawn Amos, likening himself to the griots of West Africa, a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who keep oral tradition alive, binding the people together with song. With The Cause of it All, alongside longtime guitarist Chris “Doctor” Roberts, The Rev does exactly that, and not a moment too soon. This stripped-down collection of blues classics speaks to our shared sense of vulnerability and isolation, but with the joyful, contagious swagger that has long borne bluesmen – and their listeners – through trouble, into the light.
The Cause of it All, The Reverend’s 4th studio album (Shawn Amos’ 8th), arrives less than a year after Blue Sky, his full-band outing with the Brotherhood – including drummer Brady Blade and bassist Christopher Thomas. Even as lockdown commenced, Blue Sky hit #6 on the Billboard Blues Album chart and nabbed a 4-star review in American Songwriter. It remained in the Top Ten on the Roots Music Report Blues Chart for thirty weeks.
In lieu of gigging to promote Blue Sky, The Rev and the Doctor made some potent, spiked lemonade out of some particularly bad pandemic lemons. They manifested a long-held desire of The Rev’s to journey back to the inspiration that launched him in 2014: raw, unbridled, canonical blues, presented in elemental duo format, no-frills, live in a room, as both testament and evangelism. The Cause of it All hearkens back to historic pairings like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Junior Wells & Buddy Guy. The Rev and the Doctor deliver standards and lesser-known chestnuts, all bracingly intimate, every word hanging unencumbered in the air like an incantation. Just as they have on stages throughout the world, these men leave a lot on the floor: the breath into the bullet microphone, the laughter, the fret buzz, the defiant foot stomp –everything reverberating in a spirit-filled space, offering soul sustenance as only a well-crafted song can.
“There’s a bravery I wanted to capture,” The Rev says of the platters that inspired The Cause of it All, masterworks from icons like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. “I wanted to bring back a spontaneity that’s been lost.” Sure enough, with no rhythm section to mask the occasional reckless moment, the bare bones tunes evoke the rickety front porches and smoky back rooms in which they were born, places of both refuge and unabashed celebration. The Rev executes his most assured vocals and harp playing yet, radiating within spartan arrangements percolating with Dr. Roberts’ unique, deeply sympathetic, snaky electric and acoustic stylings.
“Quarantine was the perfect opportunity to do this,” The Rev says. It’s the right time for The Cause of it All. Not only because it’s a box The Reverend Shawn Amos needed to check, but because it shows the power of elemental blues to soothe, entertain, and embolden folks who long for a lone, joyful, steadfast voice in the dark. Now more than ever.
*Feature image by James Freeman