Issue 15-22 June 3, 2021


Cover photo © 2021 Bob Kieser

 In This Issue 

Anita Schlank has our feature interview with Selwyn Birchwood. We have four blues reviews for you this week including a new music from Rogue Johnsen Project, Muddy Gurdy, Trainman Blues and Cristina Vane.

 From The Editor’s Desk 


Hey Blues Fans,

The 2021 Blues Blast Music Awards submissions have now closed. The BBMA nominators are listening to the submitted albums and working on their final selections.

Nominations will be announced on June 25 and fan voting will begin on July 1.

Wishing you health, happiness and lots of Blues music!

Bob Kieser


 Featured Interview – Selwyn Birchwood 

imageBette Davis once said that the key to life was accepting challenges, and Selwyn Birchwood appears to have adopted this philosophy as well. The 2013 IBC winner of the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award, (and current BMA nominee for Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year) faced his first challenge when he wanted to learn guitar, but no family members played any musical instruments, and they couldn’t afford to send him for more than a couple of lessons. Birchwood taught himself and added that he is still trying to learn on his own. While his parents listened to oldies from the 50s and 60s, and his friends were forming rock bands, Birchwood didn’t relate “to songs about cars and how much money people had like the popular music. I listened to blues music about love lost and love won and getting drunk—the honesty in it. I feel like that is getting lost in the music today.”

Growing up biracial, Birchwood also faced pressure from people telling him how they expected him to act.

“They would say you need to be more this way and more that way, but I’m half and half. I don’t fully identify with any specific race. I’d just rather forge my own route, my own self-actualization, rather than just going through the motions and drawing inside the lines. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner and gone my own way. I have the sort of personality that bucks against what’s popular. That’s what my song ‘Searching for My Tribe’ is about.”

Birchwood also bucks against the ‘blues purists’ who don’t believe in allowing evolution of the genre. While he appreciates and honors the musicians that formed the blues, he does not have much tolerance for those who are stuck in the past.

“When they cover and re-cover those songs there is a point where it becomes dishonest. You can hear people singing about being born in Chicago, but they weren’t, or they are singing about picking cotton—it’s bordering on fraudulent. In some cases, they are taking this music, music which was just so fierce and so deep that people were calling it the devil’s music, and they are now making it the Mickey Mouse Club. There is not much of a challenge to get an audience to like songs they already love. To try to get them to appreciate new songs—I really dig that challenge! I really enjoy artists and musicians that share themselves emotionally and lyrically, writing their own stuff. I like it when they share themselves so vulnerably and so deeply that you relate to it so completely.”

Anyone who has heard Birchwood’s songs about relationships recognize examples of how he shares the vulnerable side of himself.

“Yes-I’ve been through my own trials and tribulations, ups and downs. When relationships are good, it’s great, and when they are bad it’s horrendous. But you live and you learn and at least you know what to look out for the next time, and you don’t throw caution to the wind and ignore the warning signs.”

imageBirchwood has become more peaceful and centered in all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. “Sometimes people wish you well, as long as you don’t do better than they do. However, if they see you excel at something, then they try to scratch and pull you down. But, if you are happy already, it doesn’t matter what they do. That’s what the song ‘Steal My Shine’ is about. I’m in a lot happier space now.”

Birchwood indicated that he was the type of songwriter who is always writing.

“I’m writing all of the time, especially when we are traveling. We have hours and hours of travel and drive time, and a lot of that time is spent in my own head. Plus, I spend a lot of time listening to music as well, and I will get inspired by different music and might want to write something similar to what I liked in a song. I’ve got a notepad on my phone that is a million miles long. That’s part of the fun for me—to put the pieces together. It’s part of the challenge.”

Birchwood was signed to Alligator Records shortly after his 2013 win at the International Blues Challenge. When asked if Bruce Iglauer was a ‘blues purist’, he noted that Iglauer actually encourages him to push some boundaries.

“Bruce was in Chicago in the 60’s and 70’s and not only heard some of the original great blues musicians play he recorded most of them. Most people aren’t going to do it the way those guys did, so why would I want to even send something like that to him? Sonny Rhodes also encouraged me to individualize my sound. He told me that no one else will be a better Selwyn Birchwood than you.”

Iglauer was, however, a bit hesitant to release Birchwood’s song “Police State,” which delves into police brutality and systemic racism. “That’s the only song I won’t perform live because people are so selective in their hearing and I’m just trying to share music—not change people’s minds.”

Birchwood explained that he also does not get involved in the frequent debates on social media, although he did note that the blues currently appears to be controlled by a population that is predominantly White, and he believes that sometimes the roots of the blues “coming from slavery and the fields and the struggle is overlooked. I would like to see artists give credit where credit is due. Sometimes I see them playing Muddy Waters and B.B. King and not even mentioning them. That’s just the right thing to do.”

imageWhen asked how he connected with Tom Hambridge to produce his latest album, Living in a Burning House, Birchwood noted that his friend, Joe Louis Walker did a few records with him and he realized Tom wrote some of his favorite songs off Walker’s and Buddy Guy’s albums.

“Tom has a lot of credentials, but I don’t care that much about that—I’m more into the songwriting aspect of it. I appreciated that instead of everything falling on me to run around the studio, I could unload a lot of the responsibility onto him, and I knew it was in good hands and I trusted what he had to say. It made it a lot easier on me. This was the first time that I really had fun making an album. The fun factor was way over the stress factor of making it. I also like how it seems that life has come full circle now. I was listening to Buddy Guy when I was seventeen and first getting into the blues, and now I’ve done a few shows with Buddy Guy and I’ve got Buddy Guy’s producer doing a record with me. I’m also excited that this is my first album that is available on vinyl—it’s orange vinyl. I’m amazed at how many people are picking up the vinyl.”

Hambridge seemed equally excited about working with Birchwood. During an interview with Bruce Iglauer, Hambridge stated that Birchwood’s songs “were different. They were thought-provoking. There was a positive energy coming through the songs…he was extremely creative and took his art seriously…I was intrigued by what he had to say.”

Like other musicians, Birchwood and his band (Regi Oliver, Donald “Huff Wright”, Philip “Squeak” Walker and Walter “Bunt” May) had been fully booked for 2020 but faced the loss of nearly all gigs due to the pandemic, including the cancellation of a four-week European tour. Birchwood did some live-streaming shows, but those proved to be a poor substitute for being able to play live for an audience. He noted, “it got pretty depressing for a minute there, but it was better than nothing.” He also pointed out that he was very appreciative of the fans that followed him during that time-period and offered financial support. Birchwood acknowledged that the pandemic could be extremely difficult for him, but it also offered some opportunities.

“The bad thing is that we were home for a year, and the good thing is that we were home for a year. I learned how to make a zoom call, and now I’ve got lights and crazy microphones. I learned how to do video recording. In fact, I made music videos for ‘Living in a Burning House’ and ‘Revelation’. People asked me who my videographer was for those, but it was me.”

When asked how he managed to learn all of the skills required to produce a video, he answered “because I was home for a year. I go crazy if I don’t have something to work on, if I’m not productive and growing. It was a way to feel like I am learning still and have a challenge. I am excited with what I did with it, and I’m getting better at it all of the time.”

It appears that this extremely talented guitarist and songwriter will continue to welcome challenges, and his fan base will continue to appreciate the result of that work. Fans can follow Selwyn Birchwood on his Facebook page, Instagram and at Booking is through Intrepid Artists International.

Interviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.


 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 4

imageRogue Johnsen Project – 20/20

Self-produced CD

13 songs – 52 minutes

Based out of the southwestern suburbs of Washington, D.C., Rogue Johnsen has spent years on the road as a sideman, but serves up an all-original set of blues, jazz, rock and Southern soul on this disc, delivering an atmospheric, organ-fueled instrumentals reminiscent of Jimmy Smith, the B3 master who revolutionized music in the ‘50s with his epic run at Blue Note Records.

Johnsen’s background includes lengthy service time with three giants of Texas music: guitarist W.C. Clark, vocalist Miss Lavelle White and Archie Bell & the Drells, whose song, “Tighten Up,” topped the Billboard charts in 1968, as well as Bo Diddley, Larry Davis, Johnny Adams, Norton Buffalo and others.

A resident of West Springfield, Va., he’s the only student ever taken on by the great Charles Brown, the man who penned the standards “Drifting Blues” and “Merry Christmas Baby.” And he’s also studied with jazz master Chuck Israels (Bill Evans Trio) and guitarist Ron Thompson (John Lee Hooker), too.

Johnsen’s self-named trio was honored as the D.C. Blues Society’s band of the year in 2016. This appears to be his third self-produced release — following Way Back and Trouble Blues. He’s joined here by guitarist Mike Dutton, bassist Dean Dalton (Tom Principato), drummer Joe Wells and percussionist Jeff Covert, all of whom are veterans of the area music scene.

As the album title suggests, they recorded this one during the COVID-19 shutdown – intent on producing new music that carried forward the small-combo blues and jazz sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was recorded at Wally Cleaver’s Studio in Fredericksburg, Va., between February and November 2020, and from the opening notes, it’s a rousing success.

Dutton’s guitar sets the tone as he opens the loping “Wally Cleaver’s Shuffle” before Rogue quiet accompaniment before the duo exchange electrifying solos throughout. The unhurried “Project 9B” might remind listeners of the soundtrack of ‘60s spaghetti Westerns before the minor-keyed “Tired of Winning” opens with a brief bass lead and Johnsen follows with riffs that would leave Smith smiling.

The ballad “Just Before Sleep” – which is built atop a simple hook – soothes then flows into the unhurried funk, “Stax Tracking,” a tip of the fedora to the label that dominated the ‘60s, before the action quiets to a whisper for the sweet, jazzy “They Don’t Know.” The swinging shuffle, “Big Bright City,” heats things up from the jump and builds tension as it flows while never losing control before yielding to the sprightly rocker, “A Long Ways Away,” which comes with an early-‘60s feel.

“Downtime,” a molasses-slow blues, shows Rogue’s prowess as Brown returns to life through his fingers before the rapid-fire, stop-time barrelhouse number, “Goin’ Rogue,” throws another log on the fire. Three more pleasers — “Just A Minor Blues,” “New Blue Soul” and “Monkey Tumble Too” – bring the 53-minute set to a close.

Available through Amazon or direct from the band (address above), set your sights on 20/20. Unlike the year itself, this album will strike a pleasant chord for anyone who loves old-school instrumentals and deep grooves.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.

 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 4 

imageMuddy Gurdy – Homecoming

Chantilly Negra

CD: 11 Songs, 45 Minutes

Styles: Hill Country Blues, Drone/Trance Blues, Blues Covers

“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The same holds true for music. Whether blues musicians are household names, unknowns, or somewhere in between, they all have one thing in common: they’ve been swept away by the rapturous riptide of sound, emotion, and subconscious undercurrents of the songs they play. Only then can they hope to do the same to others. Only then have they earned the right to call themselves artists instead of hopefuls or wannabes. It’s one thing to pursue a dream. It’s quite another to have a dream pursue you, obsess you, engulf you.

Muddy Gurdy, an esoterically potent drone/trance blues ensemble from France, knows this well. Listening to their latest album, Homecoming, is akin to drinking bona-fide absinthe (which still exists). Their power doesn’t lie in volume, showmanship or swagger. It lies in subtlety and nuance – two words to which some fans are allergic. If you’re looking for LOUD, go with Walter Trout. This isn’t his kind of blues. Muddy Gurdy’s blues is for tuning in, peeling back the layers of instrumentation until you find the core, or zoning out and letting the core find you.

On eleven numbers – four originals and seven covers – they explore the wonders of traditional blues while adding their own exotic ingredients. Take the first two tracks, “Lord Help the Poor and Needy” by Jessie Mae Hemphill and “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke. The first is a mind-blowing rendition of a song that’s as relevant today as when it was originally written. It starts out with Tia Gouttebel’s heart-rending acapella intro, then explodes into a frantic, percussive, hard-driving plea for mercy in a race against our inevitable mortality, “when we all rise together.” The second takes a prisoners’ ballad and morphs it into an angsty barroom anthem, featuring brilliant guitar and defiant chanting. The most intriguing original composition is “Land’s Song,” a romping, stomping call to action with unexpected poignancy: “I sing for you. You help me too. ‘Tis the power of one. Hard luck and pain. Here comes the rain. Will our crop be saved?” The French solo in the middle may be incomprehensible to your average American farmer, but the sentiment is crystal clear – anger and frustration intermingled with reverence for the land. “Strange Fruit” has a strange intro, but everyone knows (or should know) what the “fruit” is. “Tell Me You Love Me” ends things on an upbeat, hopeful note, the only danceable track here.

Muddy Gurdy consists of Tia Gouttebel on lead vocals and guitar, Giles Chabenat on hurdy-gurdy, and Marc Glomeau on percussion and vocals. Special guests include Eric and Didier Champion, Maxence Latremoliere, Louis Jacques and Guillaume Vargoz.

Muddy Gurdy’s blues is wild, freewheeling, unexpected. Don’t try to figure it out. Instead, let yourself be swept away by this entrancing CD. Maybe you’ll have a Homecoming of your own!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.


 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 4 

imageTrainman Blues – Shadows and Shapes


CD: 12 Songs, 43 Minutes

Styles: Contemporary Electric Blues Rock, Ensemble Blues, All Original Songs

Eclectic. Merriam-Webster defines this word as “composed of elements drawn from various sources.” Blues fans, however, might define it as “Uh-oh. This isn’t what I’m used to hearing.” In the case of Shadows and Shapes, the newest album from the ensemble Trainman Blues, the adjective is a positive one. Consider your neighborhood collectibles shop, chock-full of the new, the old, and everything in between. The twelve original tracks on this CD seamlessly blend traditional blues and gospel with postmodern sound, especially on Wurlitzer organ and harp. The vocals by leading man Richard Farrell are rather hard to understand, but if one listens closely, one hears echoes of the late greats Sean Costello and Michael Ledbetter from Nick Moss and the Flip Tops. Morphing from jovial to poignant and back again, it’s comfort food for the soul.

Trainman Blues is a duo project between the blues brothers, singer/guitarist Richard Farrell (IRE), and producer/bass player Laust ‘Krudtmejer’ Nielsen (DK). Roaming from the streets of Copenhagen, Denmark, they met at the legendary Mojo Blues Bar and started collaborating in late 2016. Based on the idea of going back more than half a century to look for musical inspiration, mixed with present and personal songwriting and production, they quickly had their debut album ready. It was well received by critics and music lovers, and won a Danish Blues Music Award for “Best Album Of The Year 2018.”

Performing along with Farrell (vocals, backing vox and guitar) are Laust “Krudtmejer” Nielsen on bass, guitar, beats and organ; Thomas Crawfurd on drums and percussion; Lars Heiberg Andersen on drums; Ronni Boysen, Rune Hojmark and Alain Apaloo on guitar; Kristian Jorgensen on Wurlitzer organ; Peter Nande on harp; Cecilia Andersen on backing vocals, and Yves Moffre on saxophone.

“Losing Time” begins the album with a bouncy beat and hot harmonica from Peter Nande. It’s a reflection on the passage of time, featuring an apt metaphor: “There’s a train a-coming round the bend. When future’s fortunes keep looking ahead…” Here’s hoping that train doesn’t bludgeon us like it did last year! “Can’t Keep on Running” slows things down, literally and figuratively. No matter how fast life goes, sometimes we’ve got to take time to hold our loved ones close. Farrell’s vocals are explosive, almost mesmeric, as he takes his cues from the crooners of old. The background vocals are nothing to sneeze at, either. “Poor You,” track number four, is a rollicking, classic-sounding blues ode to a drama queen: “Poor you for the way you treated me. Poor you, you’re a dog without a bone. You were feeding on my pain, put me down into the rain.” Sarcasm just drips off this song. The title track is a gospel-style ballad with a psychedelic touch, reassuring us that our fears are ultimately “shadows and shapes, dancing in space.” “Sing Your Own Song” reminds us to hold on to our individuality despite societal and social media pressures. “I Cried” will chill you, and the final number, “Find My Wings” will lift you up.

It may not be your father’s or even your blues if you’re a Boomer, but rest assured that Shadows and Shapes has substantial songs and solid style to offer!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.


 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 4 

imageCristina Vane – Nowhere Sounds Lovely


CD: 12 Songs, 42 Minutes

Styles: Mellow Blues, Country Blues, Debut Album

Summer’s here! Not just any summer, but the first one post-COVID-vaccine. Now that we have that option, what do we all want to do? One word: “vacation.” To which place should we go? According to Nashville’s Cristina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. On her debut album, Vane takes us across the United States, as she herself ventured on a five-month cross-country tour. From “Blueberry Hill” (not the Chuck Berry song, but an original tune) to the “Badlands” to “Dreaming of Utah,” she expounds on the beauty of her father’s native land – she herself was born in Italy – and reflects upon its various lessons.

Featuring twelve original tracks, this mellow, melodic CD is perfect for taking the scenic route. With vocals reminiscent of Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and a young Bonnie Raitt, Vane lulls us into a dreamy mood, no matter which places we dream of. What the album lacks in edge and volume, it makes up for in casual, lighthearted atmosphere and gorgeous guitar all around.

“My favorite part about traveling across the country was reclaiming my American heritage, which was very difficult to figure out,” Cristina explains. “Anywhere I went I had my anthropological hat on, watching how people talk and interact. There were new places that sometimes felt totally familiar and sometimes completely foreign. Each pocket of the country has its unique flavor, and discovering the musical stylings that go along with that really informed this record. I knew virtually nothing about country, old-time and bluegrass music until I ventured to the American South, but seeing those different musical traditions on a local level was inspiring.”

Performing along with Cristina (vocals and guitar) are Cactus Moser on production and percussion, Dow Tomlin on electric and double bass, Tommy Hannum on pedal steel and dobro, and Nate Leath on fiddle.

“Blueberry Hill” is a jaunty romp to New Orleans, boasting the rhythm of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the heart of any Dolly Parton song, and the freshness of a hill-country breeze. Next comes the “Travelin’ Blues,” with more fantastic guitar, and a haunting “Prayer for the Blind.” “Pray for your mothers, all that they do. Blind lead the blind, and, oh, I’ll follow you.” Tommy Hannum graces us with his feisty fiddle, and the banjo’s not bad, either. “Wishing Bone Blues” is a loping number with some down-and-dirty mojo, and “Satisfied Soul” closes out this musical journey with an air of drowsy contentment. After all is done, nothing feels as good as coming home.

Overall, this debut effort is far above average. More musical variety would have helped, as well as one or two boogie tracks. As it is, almost every song could be a slow-dance number. Perhaps for her sophomore release, Vane will dig deep and dive even deeper, into darker recesses of the American country blues psyche. Here’s hoping, and happy vacationing!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

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