Life’s going quite swimmingly for 30-year-old blues artist Selwyn Birchwood. He was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award for Best New Artist Debut and Rolling Stone magazine said of his June 2014 Alligator Records release:
“Birchwood is a young, powerhouse guitarist and soulful vocalist. Don’t Call No Ambulance is a remarkable debut by a major player. A damn fine listen through and through. Highly recommended.”
Born in Orlando in 1985 and now based in Tampa, Birchwood first picked up a guitar at age 13 and quickly mastered the style of the greats: Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Buddy Guy.
“My parents listened to a lot of oldies,” Birchwood says of growing up. “There was some Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke and a lot of the doo-wop bands. I also heard quite a lot of Caribbean music because my dad’s from Trinidad and Tobago, so I heard a lot of island music.”
In high school, a friend of Birchwood’s kept telling him about his “neighbor in a blues band.”
“I just thought that it was some dudes in a garage — just doing something for fun on the weekends,” Birchwood says. “And it turned out to be an internationally recorded blues artist.”
The friend’s neighbor was none other than Texas-born blues legend Sonny Rhodes.
“When I first met him, I just brought my guitar over and played a little bit for him,” says Birchwood. “He stopped me halfway through the song and asked me if I had a passport. I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to take you on the road with me.'”
Several times over the next five years, Rhodes took the young blues guitarist across the United States and Canada.
“He really showed me what this lifestyle was and what it was to be a band-leader,” Birchwood explains. “It was an asset to be able to do that at such a young age. I started with him when I was 18 and it’s just really cool to have someone that’s been around as long as he has to take me in and show me the ropes.”
Clearly able to stand on his own two feet, Birchwood has since put together The Selwyn Birchwood Band, a four-piece comprising Birchwood (guitar/lap steel/vocals), Regi Oliver (sax/clarinet/flute), Donald Wright on bass and Curtis Nutall on drums.
The group arrives here this week for a gig at Beaches Museum Chapel on Thursday, April 16 and to headline Springing the Blues Festival on Friday, April 17.
“This is the third year they’re having us back,” Birchwood says of Springing the Blues. “It was flattering to be able to play it the first two years. The crowds have just been phenomenal. It’s such a great festival, so we’re really excited to get out there and play it again.”
Armed with a growing fan base and lots of critic love, The Selwyn Birchwood Band is hoping 2015 is a breakthrough year. They’re heading across the pond for a few European tours and have already begun work on their sophomore outing.
“I’ve got about half of the second album written so far and that’s where my focus is right now,” Birchwood says. “In between all of the touring and traveling that we’ve been doing — trying to get this second album together, so that we can get some new material out there for everybody.”
And while Birchwood is the front man, this blues outfit is by no means a dictatorship.
“I’ve seen bands where you’ve got the front person and they treat the rest of the band like employees,” he says. “I don’t think it works as well. I’ve always had a band and everyone gets a say. It’s a band of four people. It’s not just one person.”
As for the current musical landscape of the blues genre, Birchwood thinks there’s still a lot of work to be done — something that this 30-year-old could have a hand in changing.
“The music is as relevant today as it ever was. It’s stayed relevant and it always will be relevant because it’s real emotion and it’s real storytelling,” he says. “People can latch on to it and relate to it. It’s just that there’s no real accessibility to it. You don’t hear blues and the younger generations don’t have access to it.”