With his fiery guitar and lap steel playing, his trailblazing, instantly memorable songs and his gritty, unvarnished vocals, Selwyn Birchwood is one of the most remarkable young stars in the blues. His deep familiarity with blues tradition allows him to bust the genre wide open, adding new sounds, colors and textures, all delivered with a revival tent preacher's fervor and a natural storyteller's charisma.
Blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Selwyn Birchwood is only 33, but he’s already won the International Blues Challenge, the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award and been signed to a contract with Alligator Records. Lyric audiences can hear his high-octane blues, rooted in tradition and yet modern and funky at the same time, when he comes to Stuart this fall. The Orlando native, son of a father from Tobago and a mother from the United Kingdom, picked up a guitar when he was 13 and mimicked what he heard on the radio. He grew bored with the 1990s sound and then he heard Jimi Hendrix. In an interview, Birchwood described what happened. “He was larger than life,” he said. “What he did was mind-blowing. When I realized Hendrix was influenced by the blues, I found my path.”
By the time Birchwood was 17, he was immersed in the works of Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and particularly Buddy Guy. Guy had a concert scheduled in Orlando and Birchwood sat up front, listening. “I was floored,” he said. “I completely connected with the blues. I knew I had to make this music.”
At 19, Birchwood was introduced to blues legend Sonny Rhodes, and within a month, Birchwood was on the road with the older musician. He taught him about the guitar and lap steel, the business of music and how to reach an audience. “Sonny always said, ‘Play what’s in your heart.’ “I never lost sight of that,” Birchwood said.
Rhodes taught Birchwood another important lesson. He insisted that the young artist go to college and held a spot open for him whenever he was free. Birchwood received an MBA from the University of Tampa, because he knew that he had to be more than a musician to survive in a difficult business. In 2010, he created the Selwyn Birchwood Band, featuring older musicians who respected his musician ability and leadership. In 2011, they released FL Boy, which spread their range outside of Tampa. In 2012, they took 9thplace in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and in 2013, they won the prestigious competition. Birchwood won the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award, as well. In 2014, they released their first album with Alligator, Don’t Call No Ambulance. It received the Blues Music Award and the Living BluesCritics’ Award for Best Debut Album. The band has performed throughout Europe and the United States, creating blues for a new generation.
For their latest album, Pick Your Poison, Birchwood wrote and produced all 13 songs. The songs range from the personal to the political, with his gruff vocals and intense musicianship lending emotion to each work. “I write and sing what I know,” he said. “This album has a broad reach. It’s for young, old and everyone in between.”
Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, said that there is a reason for Birchwood’s growing popularity. “Selwyn writes smart, infectious, fresh songs and delivers them with a warm conversational vocal style and a fun-living attitude. He’s a killer guitarist, switching between the regular six-string and lap steel. Live, he’s a ball of energy, interacting with the audience like they were in his living room.”
You can almost have him in yours at The Lyric.