The Rev. Shawn Amos brings ‘joyful blues’ to Broad Fest
By Bliss Bowen
When he released his 2015 Mindi Abair-produced album “The Rev. Shawn Amos Loves You,” artist/producer Shawn Amos started sprinkling interviews with the phrase “joyful blues.”
“It’s a music that often gets misrepresented,” he says. “It’s definitely a music of joy and resilience, as well as a music that speaks to hardship.”
Amos recently took his band to Memphis, where they recorded tracks for a new album he hopes to release later this year or in early 2018. The first single, “Ain’t Gonna Name Names,” has an upbeat pop feel, but the album’s inspired by freedom songs that soundtracked the 1960s civil rights movement.
“It’s closer to the church roots of the Staple Singers,” Amos says of the new material. “It’s an evolution and a deeper ride into that blues journey. I wanted to write some modern-day freedom songs. There’s sort of a quaintness to songs like that. There’s zero cynicism in them and they’re very pure in the joy of their message, and that’s a tough way to write in the 21st century, where cynicism and snarkiness are celebrated. I wanted to celebrate our commonality and humanity.
“It’s got one foot in the church and one foot with the resistance and one foot with blues. We’ll definitely play a couple of the songs at the Broad Fest.”
Sunday’s Broad Fest will also feature bolero from Tres Souls, electric violinist Val Vigoda, Bollywood-inspired duo Sadubas, and reggae from Aaron Nigel Smith, among others. The event’s family-friendly vibe is worlds removed from Amos’ surreal childhood in Hollywood, where he routinely rode his bike past Sunset Strip hookers he described as “maternal figures” in a movingly written four-part series for Huffington Post in 2011. (The man has a book in him, though it has yet to be penned.) His father was Wally Amos of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies; his mother Shirley an ex-nightclub singer whose schizoaffective disorder made him watchful and resilient at a tender age.
Those survival skills proved useful in the music industry, where the enterprising Amos released several solo albums (including 2005’s handsomely arranged pop tribute to his mother, “Thank You Shirl-ee May [A Love Story]”) and also worked as an A&R executive for Rhino Records and Shout! Factory. In 2009 he launched his own digital media company, Amos Content Group, which he later sold; he has since started Put Together Media, after finally realizing that his creative and business selves could coexist and serve each other.
“For a large part of my life it was a battle between two sides of my brain; one side had to be vanquished. I’m lucky that I’ve got these skill sets that a lot of musicians don’t have at their disposal. I have skill sets that a lot of executives don’t have at their disposal.”
As a musician he experienced an epiphany singing blues for the first time at a 2013 festival in Italy. While a student at NYU he had discovered blues through Peter Guralnick’s books “Feel Like Going Home,” “Sweet Soul Music” and “Lost Highway,” and on breaks he traveled down South to experience the places where the music evolved.
“It was a real chance for me to get in touch with my own history, which I’d been out of touch with growing up in West L.A. and Hollywood,” he recalls. But not until he was onstage in Italy, experiencing audience reactions to him performing blues, did he “discover the past, present and future of my heritage.”
“It was my personal crossroads,” he says with a laugh, “where I just sort of understood the power of that music in a way I hadn’t understood before. Blues had been more of an intellectual exercise for me, a musicologist kind of thing. But performing it was really visceral for me. It freed me as a performer in a way that I was not freed up doing my own introspective singer-songwriter material. Doing blues allowed me to understand the value and the nobility of entertaining people, and performing music whose primary purpose is to entertain and offer retreat from the toughness of life.”
He was also profoundly influenced by late gospel and R&B great Solomon Burke, whose last three albums he produced at Shout! Factory. Burke became a mentor and friend before his death in 2010.
“He gave me a lot of gifts, personal and musical,” Amos says. “I definitely feel his spirit when I’m performing. Toward the end of his life he was bound to a chair, and the guy could get a whole audience on their feet through his voice. He was still a rollicking performer. I always take that to heart, from the way the band and I dress to the mission to get people feeling good and to bring them joy and as much positivity as we can.”
The Rev. Shawn Amos performs a 45-minute set at 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3, for Broad Fest, which hosts live music, food vendors and more from 2 to 7 p.m. inside and outside The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org for more info.