(5 / 5)
In my Top Five best blues albums of the year thus far. Selwyn Birchwood’s “difficult second album” doesn’t sound like it caused him many sleepless nights at all. His debut in 2014, “Don’t Call No Ambulance”, was an audacious affair, and burst Selwyn into the spotlight as one to watch. The album received the Blues Music Award and Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album Of 2014, and he won the 2015 Blues Blast Rising Star Award. This one is even better.
Who is Selwyn?His father is from Tobago, his mother from the UK. Selwyn was born in 1985 in Orlando, Florida. He first grabbed a guitar at age 13 and soon became proficient at mimicking what he heard on the radio. But the popular grunge rock, hip-hop and metal of the 1990s didn’t move him, and he quickly grew bored. And then he heard Jimi Hendrix. When he realised Hendrix was influenced by the blues, he found his path. By 17, Selwyn was soaking up Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and especially Buddy Guy.
A 19-year-old Selwyn discovered a guitar-playing neighbour was Texas-born blues legend Sonny Rhodes, who was instantly impressed with the enthusiastic young guitar slinger. Within one month, Rhodes asked Birchwood to pack his bags and join him on the road. It was an incredible experience for Birchwood, as Rhodes took the young man under his wing, teaching him not only guitar and lap steel, but also how to conduct business, how to run a band, and how to reach an audience. Birchwood went to college, and received his MBA from The University of Tampa. Combining the musical lessons learned from Rhodes and his business acumen, Birchwood created The Selwyn Birchwood Band in 2010, featuring veteran musicians older than Selwyn, testifying to Selwyn’s musical chops and his leadership skills.
He is a breath of fresh air on a blues scene that apart from the odd pocket, has veered too far over towards rock for my liking in the last few years. Every last guitarist, especially the young guitar slingers popping up on every street corner, all seemingly wanting to be Joe Bonamassa or Gary Moore. It is obvious that Selwyn Birchwood wants to be Selwyn Birchwod. He sounds like no one else. That is a rare statement from me, after 39 years of covering music, in particular the blues.
A couple of years ago, Selwyn was part of the Alligator Records package tour that came over here to play the annual Great British R&B Festival in Colne, Lancashire. It was Selwyn, Jarekus Singleton and Tommy Castro with their respective bands. Alligator Records owner Brice Iglauer did a Q & A first and then introduced each of his bands to the stage. Selwyn kicked off the night and ripped the roof off of that town hall in the sleepy Lancashire town. I felt quite sorry for Jarekus having to follow ‘Hurricane Birchwood!’
If I described him as “dangerous”, I would not be out of line. The same way that I am sure many people described Mr James Hendirx when they first saw him back in the late 60s and 70s. Unpredictable, exciting and a one-off. A guitar and lap steel playing bundle of pure energy, with a commanding vocal. He delivers his original songs with a revival tent preacher’s fervour and a natural storyteller’s charisma made all the more impactful by his raw, unvarnished vocals. The 32-year-old, with his 6’ 3” frame and trademark huge Afro, roams the stage (often barefoot) ripping out high-octane songs that range from raucous romps to hill country stomps, from searing, serious slow Blues to modern Blues rock.
The new record “Pick Your Poison” is quite simply fantastic. The opener “Trial By Fire” delivers scorching slide guitar and raunchy vocals on a country blues inspired by R.L. Burnside. A great start. The balance between blues, roots, Americana and gutsy rock and roll is spot on. Think Robert Randolph meets Robert Johnson with Taj Mahal, Freddie King and T Bone Walker along for the ride.
13 cuts, all penned by Selwyn. His regular band of baritone, tenor and alto sax man Regi Oliver who also plays flute, Huff Wright on bass and super drummer Courtney Girlie on drums add huge, huge value here – there’s real chemistry that only comes from lots of time spent with each other on the road. The styles here straddle many genres; this is not just a blues album. Funky R&B, gospel, trad’ acoustic blues, driving rock…it is all here. The kind of classy stuff you would not be surprised to see T-Bone Burnett’s name on. But the producer here is Selwyn, the album recorded in Orlando, in his home state of Florida.
Almost impossible to pick out the standout tracks, as it is all quite simply; shit hot. The gospel flavoured “Even The Saved Need Saving” is powerful and uplifting, with it’s a cappella harmonies and a glorious lap steel solo in the “sacred steel” style, these days associated with the previously mentioned and brilliant, Robert Randolph. A song about drunken texting is a clever idea; “My Whiskey Loves My Ex”. A crafted arrangement on the funky title cut. The slow blues “Heavy Heart” is a killer track; with shades of O.V. Wright and James Carr in the soulful vocal, and channelling his hero Buddy Guy on the awesome guitar solo that many will be pressing “replay” on.
With Buddy Guy just about the last man standing of the old guard, we badly need the young guns to keep the blues flame burning. This dude is as cool as an iceberg, talent as big as said structure as a songwriter, singer and guitarist, an exciting artist only at the very start of his career; with a unique take on traditional and contemporary blues. Which all means we have absolutely nothing to worry about. The future is bright.
By Simon Redley
(1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’