To be satisfied, or to not be satisfied..?
That is the question.
And for fast-rising blues star Selwyn Birchwood, the answer is an easy one. He’ll take the not-satisfied position, thank you very much.
After winning the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in 2013, Birchwood could have been forgiven had he decided to climb to the top of the Peabody Hotel, gazed out over downtown Memphis and shouted, ‘I’ve finally hit the big-time. I’ve got it made!’
But apparently, that’s not how Selwyn Birchwood is wired. Instead of considering his coup over 200-plus other bands at the International Blues Challenge as the pinnacle of his young career as a bluesman, Birchwood views it more like a springboard to bigger and better things on down the road.
In other words, he’s hardly satisfied.
“Well, here’s how I look at that (winning the IBC); it unlocked a bunch of doors for us and now that’s allowed us to go and open those doors – or in some cases, kick them in – and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Just from looking at some of the past winners, it seems like they think they’ve got it made after winning. I don’t look at it like that. I look at it like now is when the real work begins.”
Birchwood, who also won the Albert King Award – along with a killer Gibson ES-335 – for best guitarist at the 2013 IBC, has seen his schedule packed almost to the bursting point since then, with gig after gig after gig – including road trips all across the United States and beyond – filling up his daily planner.
“It’s been non-stop. After the IBC win we got on the road and really started pounding the pavement and tried to get out to as many places as we could and stretch out as much as we could,” he said. “We’ve played in front of a lot of people since then and they’ve liked the sound of the band and we just keep building things up, one show at a time. And now, we’re just trying to keep things moving.”
That forward progress for Birchwood seems to have almost reached critical mass recently, ever since his heavily-acclaimed major label release – Don’t Call no Ambulance (Alligator Records) – hit the record store racks back in early June.
“I’m ecstatic about the reception it’s gotten so far. I thought it might be kind of a tossup, because there’s always going to be differences in people’s opinions. You’ve got your traditionalists and then you’ve got your non-traditionalists,” said Birchwood. “And we were trying to find that good medium ground (with the album). We wanted to have all the emotion and feeling of the old-school blues, but with kind of a different light and a different angle on it. But I felt good about the album; I thought the songs were strong and recorded well. I hoped it would do well and I’m really pleased with the way it’s been received so far. We’ve been out on the road since it came out in June, just trying to get it out there to everybody.”
Birchwood and his band have been wowing audiences all over the place with a stage show jam-packed with great playing, great songs, a great deal of energy – and maybe best of all – a great deal of fun.
“When we’re up on the stage, that’s when we get to have fun. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel, because when we’re not on stage, we’re traveling and not sleeping and hauling equipment around,” he said. “But when we get up on that stage – that’s why we do all that other stuff – to get to that part when we can just get up there and have fun. And a lot of people seem to pick up on that.”
There’s little doubt that having the marketing force and brain-power that Alligator Records brings to the party is a major plus for a relatively new artist that is still trying to carve out his own space in the world of the blues. And according to Birchwood, the work that goes on behind the scenes at Alligator is a sight to behold.
“It’s great. The entire team at Alligator is just incredible. They’re all extremely good at their jobs. When I first met the team – I think there are about 16 people over at Alligator – I thought that was a lot of people,” the 29-year-old native of Florida said. “But when we sat down and had our meeting and I was told what each one of them did for their jobs, I was very impressed. Combined, they do the work of about 60 people, it seems like. It’s really an asset to work with a team like that. Working with Bruce (Iglauer) in the studio and on the business-side of things has been great. To have someone like him that really knows this business and knows his way around the studio and how to make and promote records the way he does is just incredible.”
Birchwood seems to be blessed with all the abilities a blues player needs. In baseball parlance, he might be referred to as a ‘5-tool player.’ Even though it’s his fretwork that draws the most attention, his vocals are also a large part of what makes his music so compelling.
“I really enjoy most of the older rootsy blues singers and a lot of the old-school soul singers, too. I know I’m not going to be able to sing like this person or that person in a lot of respects, so I just try to work with what I have,” he said.
Not unlike other younger blues players also on the scene in 2014, Birchwood’s music is not a complete carbon-copy of 1950s-era Chess Records stuff. It may be constructed on a base of Muddy Waters, but there’s also a little Sly & The Family Stone and maybe even a touch of Savoy Brown lurking just below the surface, too.
“With the band that I’m playing with, we come from a lot of different stuff in our backgrounds. When we get together and write and come up with music, we try to incorporate all of those different influences into it,” Birchwood said. “Regi (Oliver – sax) and Curtis (Nutall – drums) come from more of a jazz background and Huff (Wright – bass) plays a lot of funk, along with blues and jazz, as well. So we just try and mix everything together and see what we can come up with.”
Even though he was a child of the 80s and started playing guitar in 1998, when he was 13-years-old, Birchwood was quickly pulled into the magical realm of six-string legends like Jimi Hendrix, Freddie King, Albert Collins and Albert King – guys whose last new, original music was issued way before he was even born. Despite that, the impact those elder cats had on him was both immediate and life-changing.
“Their music is just so timeless. That’s why they continue to amaze and inspire young guitarists. You can listen to any of the songs that those guys did and they’re still just as relevant today as they were back then,” Birchwood said. “The other thing is, they’re just so unique and they all have such individual sounds; that’s what guitarists strive to find – that unique, individual sound that’s your own. And all of those guys did that 100-percent. They weren’t trying to be the fastest, or the most technical, players, but when you hear them playing, you immediately know who it is.”
Another famed guitarist of note that had an immeasurable impact on Birchwood’s fomulative days as a guitarist was the great bluesman Sonny Rhodes. Whereas with Hendrix, Collins and the Kings, Birchwood could only absorb their music through discs or old videos, with Rhodes, he had the amazing opportunity to learn things up close and personal.
“I was fortunate to meet him when I was just fresh out of high school. He was a neighbor of one of my high school friends. My friend knew that I played and he would always say, ‘My neighbor’s got a blues band.’ He brought me one of his (Rhodes’) CDs and as soon as I heard it, I was like, ‘Man, you have to introduce me to whoever this is,’” said Birchwood. “It took a few months, but I finally went over and I played a little for him. He stopped me halfway through a song and looked at his bass player and then looked back at me and smiled and asked if I had my passport. He said he was going to take me on the road with him.”
And that’s just what Rhodes did. Not only did Birchwood become a touring member of Rhodes’ band for over four years, he was also inspired to start playing the lap steel guitar after hanging around with the Texas-born bluesman.
“It was really a first-class education in the blues business. He really led by example. Just watching him, I learned how to run a band and what to do and what not to do. I learned how to interact with crowds … just everything about playing the blues,” said Birchwood. “Me being 19-years-old and starting out at that level, it was really an asset for me. He didn’t really sit me down and give me a lesson here and a lesson there, but I just watched him like a hawk and watched every part of everything he was doing. My goal when I was with him was to really live the life and absorb all I could. And I think that’s what I did.”
With the way that Birchwood attacks his guitar on stage, ripping off lick after tasty blues lick, it’s easy to see that the young man has spent countless hours practicing his craft and honing it to a razor-sharp edge. But as impressive as Birchwood’s command of his instrument is, it’s not the only thing he’s been focused on the past decade or so. In addition to playing the blues – with Sonny Rhodes and with his own outfit – Birchwood somehow also found enough time to earn his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Tampa.
“I’ve always been academic – ever since I was a kid. My family pushed me towards academics and when they realized I wanted to play music for a living, they kind of tried to shy me away from it a little bit, just because they wanted me to have some security and whatnot,” he said. “But I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t do both and I had the opportunity and the means to go and get a degree, so I just went on to do it. I really didn’t have any plans for it (a college degree), but I just thought it would be silly to not do it when I had the means and the ability. So I just went and got it.”
He probably didn’t have any clue just how much his life would change after he stepped off the stage in Memphis on the night of Feb. 2, 2013, after being named the IBC champion in his second year of competition in the annual event. But it didn’t take long for Birchwood – who represented Florida’s Suncoast Blues Society in the battle – to find out just how much things would change.
“Yeah, I had no idea at the time. I just always thought that if we had the opportunity to win something like that, we’d be able to take it and run with it. I’ve seen some bands that have won it and then roll back into obscurity pretty quickly,” he said. “I always felt like we were ready to get out on the road and get moving, but we just needed that little extra bump … that little extra push. And that’s what we got (winning the IBC). Then we just took it and hit the ground running. And we’re still trying to keep it moving now.”