|BLUES TORCHBEARER HONORS THE GREATS WITH DUO ALBUM, THE CAUSE OF IT ALL
“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 harkens 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.
- Spoonful (Willie Dixon) 3:58
Willie Dixon’s fervent, unique expression of desire, unleashed in 1960, is one of the best -known blues songs, a direct antecedent to the British Invasion, made famous by Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Cream. “Willie Dixon is the Gershwin of blues,” says The Rev, who adopts some of Wolf’s enticingly menacing delivery. “I’ve sung this song probably more than any other, going back to my earliest club days in L.A.”
- Goin’ To The Church (Lester Butler) 4:28
An outlier in The Cause of it All, “Goin’ to the Church” is a modern classic, written circa early 90s by the sadly departed Lester Butler, vocalist/harmonica virtuoso for Rick Rubin-produced LA roots rockers The Red Devils. “This is modern blues that gets it right, that really swings,” says The Rev. He honors Butler’s work with a full-throated sermon to the power of the spirit, and the need to succumb to it when all else fails.
- Still A Fool (Muddy Waters) 3:26
This swampy Chess B-side represents the bluesman most covered on The Cause of it All: the Mississippi Delta’s own Muddy Waters, widely regarded as the father of Chicago blues. “I wanted something gutbucket,” The Rev says, “with deep twang.” Released in 1951, when Muddy was rising in Chicago, this dark prowler exemplifies the nexus of Delta and Chicago blues.
- Color And Kind (Howlin’ Wolf) 3:27
“As macho as blues figures are,” The Rev says, “there’s such vulnerability there, such pain and loss, and pining over people. Deep heartbreak masked in drunken bravado.” Case in point is Howlin’ Wolf’s 1952 gem “Color and Kind.” A rueful lyric serves as this collection’s title: “I love my baby, but she’s the cause of it all.” As for the laughter following The Rev’s unhinged harmonica solo: “It’s a moment of insanity,” says The Rev. The good kind.
- Serves Me Right To Suffer (John Lee Hooker) 5:38
This hypnotic 1966 John Lee Hooker track made a mark on The Rev during a low time, offering, in a single, one-chord song, space for him to express remorse, desire, righteousness, and vengeance. “It’s like a tone poem,” he says of Mr. Hooker’s lyrics, which work with the primal accompaniment to convey a man who, when “milk, cream, and alcohol” fail him, can only escape the intense stresses of his life through song.
- I’m Ready (Willie Dixon) 2:15
The Rev chose a rollicking “parlor music” version of this 1954 standard to kick off acoustic “side two” of The Cause of it All on an optimistic note. Originally recorded for Chess by Muddy Waters, it’s been covered by innumerable artists, from Little Walter to Eric Burdon to Aerosmith. For Dixon’s usual genius imagery, The Rev opts for fervid, hushed tones over the Doctor’s steadily rhythmic acoustic, conveying a vulnerable sincerity that can get lost in the usual loud machismo.
- Baby Please Don’t Go (traditional) 3:10
“Quintessential blues,” The Rev says of this tune historians generally trace back to both slavery and Tin Pan Alley, first made famous in 1935 by Big Joe Williams. “Ours is an amalgam of various versions,” The Rev says, “closest to Muddy Waters’.” This track in particular showcases the special musical fraternity of the Doctor and The Rev, comfortably in synch, even as they skirt the edge.
- Can’t Hold Out Much Longer (Little Walter) 3:32
“Little Walter is my favorite harp player,” says The Rev of the only harmonica player inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even as The Rev began writing his own blues material, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” from 1952, has remained in his set. A true outlaw and genius musician, Little Walter would ultimately die in a bar fight, leaving behind a new understanding of what the mouth harp could do, and songs that, The Rev points out, “were never sweet and tender, but were still vulnerable, wounded.”
- Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters) 4:11
One of the most internationally recognizable blues songs, this 1954 Muddy Waters classic is part of the firmament. To put an original spin on it, The Rev again delivers much of the vocal close to the microphone, conspiratorially, doling the exuberant joy in bursts, cutting loose in the pealing, insistently joyous harmonica solo.
- Little Anna Mae (Muddy Waters) 2:22
This 1948 Muddy Waters B-side is another example of both Delta and Chicago blues, a song that originated as a duo recording: Muddy, in acoustic mode, with pianist Sunnyland Slim. Recast in 2021 as a lovelorn guitar/vocal lament, this goodbye to a bewitching woman encapsulates the power of the blues to recognize something that must go, even as you honor what it – or she – gave you.