At 35, Selwyn Birchwood is hardly the ‘typical’ blues artist. Yet, being pegged a maverick has little to do with his age. His musical epiphany came at age 13 upon first hearing Hendrix and, tracing the artist’s love for the blues, a chance to see Buddy Guy live sealed the deal for this young guitarist. He not only realized what he wanted to do but was also fortunate to study under Sonny Rhodes’ tutelage – on the road of hard knocks.

Refining his guitar skills, learning lap steel under Sonny and realizing that the blues masters he most revered were the authors of their own stories, Birchwood wanted to do the same – connecting with others through sharing his life experiences. Getting his MBA, releasing a self-produced album and capturing top honours at Memphis’ International Blues Challenge added to the picture. Two successful releases on the Alligator label later, this is Birchwood‘s third – with 13 new originals and production helmed by Tom Hambridge. Band members Regi Oliver (on distinctive baritone/alto/tenor sax), Donald Wright (bass), Philip Walker (drums) and newly-christened B3/keyboard player, Walter May, join Hambridge, Diunna Greenleaf and Cece Teneal on additional backup vocal support.

From the opening notes of the high-energy “I’d Climb Mountains”, there’s clearly a bigger band presence, May’s keyboards greatly filling out the sound with Birchwood’s distinctively gritty vocals clearly front and centre. The equally energetic “I Got Drunk, Laid and Stoned” adds lap steel atop baritone sax and a somewhat funky backbeat. Things warm up considerably with the title track and, despite an inconsistent vocal, Birchwood’s big voice is sometimes reminiscent of a young Gil-Scott Heron.

Throughout this big arrangement, the baritone duels – back and forth – with Birchwood’s spiky lead guitar. The positively upbeat “You Can’t Steal My Shine” suffers from some reaching vocals yet the congruence of this band around its leader is impressive, Birchwood’s snakelike guitar accenting this positive stance. Equally adept at adding a significant soulful edge to his vocals, the dark, streetwise “Revelation” offers a prediction of doom that benefits from droning horns, a wall of percussion and Birchwood’s searing guitar.

Likewise, “Searching For My Tribe” seems a call-to-action, featuring incendiary guitar sweetened by a catchy chorus. The sweet-soul of a love letter shifts gears with “She’s A Dime” while “One More Time” adds another soulful, jazz-oriented time-out, riding on Oliver’s sax solos, Teneal’s backup and May’s heady B3. “Mama Knows Best” delivers a stand-off life lesson as Birchwood’s duets with Greenleaf’s sturdy ‘Mom’ as she talks some sense into her son.

Comparing the offbeat, repetitive boogie of the lap-steel-laden “Freaks Come Out At Night” to the more joyous “Through a Microphone”, one realizes no two Birchwood songs are alike. A man of many ‘voices’, his explorative spirit plays a big part in his appeal. Songs like “Rock Bottom” contrasts with the acoustically-driven “Happy Place” to reveal a young artist’s search for his proper place. In the meanwhile – the rest of us can bask in his journey. (Eric Thom)

Jan 2021 - Layla Zoe
Jan 2021 - Gráinne Duffy