A FEW MINUTES WITH… Selwyn Birchwood
By Don Wilcock
Selwyn Birchwood is a young – by blues standards – 32-year-old African American blues artist who is successfully walking the tightrope between old school, present day and future blues necessary to successfully connect with today’s crossover blues/rock fan.
“That’s really sort of the aim of it, how to be the same but different, how to be current but old school,” says Birchwood, who plays a free outdoor concert at Albany’s Pearl Street Pub following the Alive at Five concert on Thursday (June 15). “That’s the aim of what we’ve been trying to do, and I think we’re getting toward the ability to do it with this record. I think this is a step toward it at least.”
Released a month ago, Pick Your Poison is Birchwood’s second album for Alligator Records, the largest blues indie label in a diminishing field increasingly dominated by artists who self-release. Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer has an uncanny ear for signing artists who adroitly walk that tightrope.
The album opens with a flute solo by Regi Oliver, whose wind instrument credits include Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie. The album’s dozen all-original songs – including “Police State” and “Corporate Drone” – address contemporary issues. Birchwood’s use of dynamics on his arrangements are some of the best I’ve heard since Buddy Guy, and his guitar playing shows a plethora of influences that include Freddie King, Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, B.B. King and Birchwood’s mentor, Sonny Rhodes.
As a 19-year-old, Birchwood went on the road with Texas-born blues legend Sonny Rhodes, who 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. Rhodes was impressed with him even at that tender age.
“I told him I was in school, and at that point I would have been happy to jump off and go on the road and put school on hold and whatnot, but he said he would hold my position in the band, and whenever I got out of school or got out on break, if there’s someone in the position, that he’d make a different position for me or get rid of that guitar player and have me back on,” Birchwood recalls. “That’s what he did, and whenever I got out of school – in the winter time and in the summer time – I would head straight out and meet up with him on the road and travel and tour with him. And when I got out of school, then I went with him full-time a little while. And finally that’s the way it fell. He’s the one who got me into playing lap steel. I didn’t actually play lap steel until I went with him, and that was what really turned me on to the instrument was listening to him play at night.”
Birchwood went on to earn an MBA at the University of Tampa, and for a while he held down a day job that he sings about in “Corporate Drone.” “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I had to write a song about it. They say go to school and get a good job, this, that, and the other thing. I just realized it’s such a con job to get out there, and you are just killing yourself to make other people money. I’m just completely disenchanted with it. I’d rather work for myself any day than come back in that kind of hierarchy and bureaucracy.”
He formed his own band in 2010, went from ninth place in the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2012 to first place in 2013, taking the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award at the same time. His debut Alligator CD Don’t Call No Ambulance earned the Blues Music Award for Best New Artist and the Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album in 2015. He signed with arguably the premier blues booking agency, Intrepid Artists, that same year. In a style of music that normally takes a decade or more to score a resume that impressive, Birchwood has done it in less than five. But he’s oblivious to the significance.
“I don’t think in those terms,” he insists. “I kinda think more in one step at a time and what’s right in front of me. I feel if I do that, everything else will fall into place. All I think about is in whatever show I’m playing to do the best show that I can, and the best performance possible, write the best songs that I can at any given point and try to work and learn and (play) my instrument as much as I can. And I feel everything else should fall into place if I keep doing that ’cause that will always be my goal.”
One thing is for sure. He’s his own man. None of his songs have choruses and some of his songs don’t even include guitar solos. “I feel like the music should write itself in a sense instead of forcing things into place just to put ’em there. I wanted to write an album that people listen to. Not just have a bunch of guitar chops or a bunch of anything on it. I really wanted to write a record people just wanted to listen to again and again. I hate it when I go see bands, and I feel like I’m listening to the same song in different tempos all the time.
“We try and play a lot of different kinds of music. I feel like there’s so many different shades of blues that people tend to overlook, and they latch onto one and just wanna cram it down your throat sort of thing. I don’t dig it that way. I like to try and give a variety of sounds that colors on the music. I think it makes for a more interesting picture.”
MORE OF NIPPERTOWN’S UPCOMING FREE CONCERT EVENTS
TROY RIVER FEST @ various locations, Troy, June 17
DADFEST @ Washington Park, Albany, June 18
NEW YORK STATE’S FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, July 4
SCHENECTADY COUNTY SUMMERNIGHT @ Broadway, Schenectady, July 14
KIDS DAY @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, July 15
BLACK ARTS & CULTURAL FESTIVAL @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, August 5
NEW YORK STATE FOOD FESTIVAL @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, August 9
JAZZ AT THE LAKE @ Shepard Park, Lake George, September 16 & 17
MUSIC IN THE PARK @ Schodack Town Park, Schodack, 6pm, June 6-July 11
TUESDAY NIGHTS IN THE PARK @ Cook Park, Colonie, 6:30pm, June 13-August 29
MADE IN THE SHADE OF THE EGG @ the Empire State Plaza at The Egg, Albany, 12noon, June 7-August 30
CAPITAL CONCERT SERIES @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, 5pm, June 28-July 26
ROCKIN’ ON THE RIVER @ Riverfront Park, Troy, 5pm, June 7-August 9
JAZZ NIGHTS @ Empire State Plaza, Albany, 5:30pm, September 13 & 20
CONCERTS AT WINDSOR LAKE @ Windsor Lake, North Adams, 6:30pm, June 7-August 30
FREEDOM PARK CONCERT SERIES @ Freedom Park, Scotia, 7pm, June 21-August 23
JAZZ ON JAY @ Jay Street, Schenectady, 12noon, June 1-August 31
ALIVE AT FIVE @ Corning Preserve’s Jennings Landing, Albany, 5pm, June 8-August 3
BROWN’S SUMMER SESSIONS @ Brown’s Brewing Co., Troy, 5pm, June 1-July 13
ROCK THE BLOCK @ Remsen Square, Cohoes, 6:30pm, June 8-August 10
UPBEAT ON THE ROOF @ Skidmore College’s Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, 7pm, July 13-August 24
FRIDAYS AT THE LAKE: BANDS & BREWS CONCERT SERIES @ Shepard Park, Lake George, 6pm, June 16-September 1
MUSIC AT SUNSET @ Greenport Town Park, Hudson, 7pm, June 9-August 25
FREEDOM PARK CONCERT SERIES @ Freedom Park, Scotia, 7pm, June 24-August 26
CAFFE LENA @ SPAC @ Saratoga Performing Arts Center Gazebo, Saratoga Springs, 12noon, July 9 & August 27
MUSIC HAVEN CONCERT SERIES @ Central Park’s Music Haven, Schenectady, 7pm, July 9-August 13
FREEDOM PARK CONCERT SERIES @ Freedom Park, Scotia, 7pm, June 25-August 20