Learning from the masters
Guitarist Selwyn Birchwood learned the craft of the blues from Sonny Rhodes, a Texas-born guitarist who first recorded in the late 1950s. At age 19, Birchwood learned that Rhodes was his neighbor in his native Orlando, Florida, and took his guitar with him for a visit.
“A friend of mine brought one of his CDs, and I was blown away by his playing,” Birchwood said in a phone interview from Canada. Rhodes liked Birchwood’s playing, and recruited him to play on several of his tours. “It was cool to have an older blues musician let me under their wing and show me the ropes. He really showed me what the blues lifestyle was like, what to do, what not to do. He gave me a real education,” Birchwood said.
He and his band have been touring to promote his recording “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (on Alligator Records), and the tour comes to the Warehouse Blues Series today. The band that plays on the record will join him at the show – Regi Oliver on baritone, tenor and other saxophones, Donald “Huff” Wright on bass and Curtis Nutall on drums. Birchwood plays the electric and lap steel guitars. The band is “kind of a mashup of contacts I had,” Birchwood said. He knew Oliver when he was in Orlando, and the rest of the band came together when he moved to Tampa, where he now lives.
He won the Blues Foundation’s 2013 International Blues Challenge, and took home the organization’s Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award. The tour for “Don’t Call No Ambulance” is going well, with good CD sales at the concerts, with many audience members listening to the recording before the live dates, Birchwood said. The CD also got high a “Highly recommended” from Rolling Stone magazine.
Born in 1985, Birchwood first learned about the blues music tradition when as a teenager he heard Jimi Hendrix’s music. “It was something that I stumbled upon,” he said. He had heard Hendrix when he was younger, but was not aware of the name of the guitarist. “When I heard it, I remembered that I always liked it” and from there began his wider listening of the blues.
Those lessons come through on “Don’t Call No Ambulance.” The title song is a quick tempo rocking blues, and Birchwood takes two fine guitar solos. “Love Me Again,” with its slow tempo and Oliver’s subtle horns, has that warm Stax Records feel. Birchwood’s vocal delivery and his sweet, spare guitar solo make this a classic plea to a lost love. Guest artist R.J. Harman’s harmonica helps give the slow blues “Overworked and Underpaid” its working class bona-fides, and Birchwood’s lap steel solo is just wonderful. The talking blues “Hoodoo Stew” is a vehicle for Birchwood to show his mastery of the lap steel guitar.
“I like a lot of the older records like Charlie Patton -- I like that raw sound,” Birchwood said, and he likes the live studio feel. “A lot of people are turned off by that if they are not blues enthusiasts or historians.” For this first recording, he wanted more of a studio-produced feel. “You can go from sounding really good to sounding rootsy, rather than doing it the other way,” he said, a path he might follow in his next recording.
He takes advantage of road time to listen to music. “I’m always listening ….I like all the old soul music, all the old blues music. I like jazz, country, reggae,” he said.