Selwyn Birchwood in Durham Central Park (Durham, N.C. – July 18, 2014)
If you go to a Selwyn Birchwood show, the dance floor should be packed with enthusiastic hoofers. If not, the young Florida-based guitarist has a back-up plan: To ensure that there’s at least one dancer gyrating to the beat, a mummified muppet voodoo doll dangles by his neck in front of the kick drum, hinged limbs jerking with every thump, paying silent homage to the exuberant, vibrant Birchwood blues soundtrack.
Friday night’s show at Durham, N.C.’ s Central Park had few dancers, but that was mainly due to the enthusiastic and intimidating interpretive dance exhibition being put on by a senor citizen who had more moves in his arsenal than Bob Fosse or Twyla Tharp. But even his over the top histrionics couldn’t overshadow what Birchwood and his trio was putting out a few feet away.
The 29-year-old guitarist looks about 17, but plays like an old soul. The 2013 winner of the International Blue Challenge was in town to promote Don’t Call No Ambulance, his debut on Alligator Records.
Birchwood was mentored by Texas blues guitarist Sonny Rhodes, but it was obvious from the first few notes that the young guitarist is familiar with musical royalty as well. Albert and Freddie King shine through his playing, as does Albert Collins. Birchwood does Muddy Waters justice as well.
But the singer/guitarist doesn’t rely on covers. His debut album is all originals, and he started cranking out the cuts with “The River Turned Red,” a swampy, slippery manifesto reeking with Louisiana hoodoo juice. “Love Me Again” is pure soul, Birchwood sounding like former Hootie and the Blowfish turned country star Darius Rucker, interspersed with some pretty guitar for the ladies in the audience to sway along with ’till he resumes crooning, breaking their hearts and winning their souls.
This is Piedmont blues territory, and Birchwood wants to pay homage to that. He admitted he’s not a Piedmont blues player : (“I’m from Florida,” he said,” so I’m just gonna do my best.”) His best is an unaccompanied Piedmont-perfect version of “Railroad Bill,” although he quickly runs out of words. “That’s all the verses I know, so I’m just gonna play some,” he said, segueing into “Lay My Burden Down,”cranking out some of the cleanest Piedmont style pickin’ this side of Blind Boy Fuller or Blind Blake.
Birchwood has an easygoing manner that quickly wins over the audience. “They said this was a slide blues series, so I guess I should play some slide,” he said, ripping into a version of “High Heel Sneakers” that has the exhibitionist dance interpreter leaping in ecstasy and some brave souls staking out the few remaining dance floor spaces to frolic in as well.
Birchwood tested the crowd by asking how many know who Muddy Waters is, and when the audience’s roar of approval died down, he confessed that he asked that question because some places he plays, people call out requests for Janis Joplin or Mariah Carey songs. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said he tells those clueless crowds, “ but ..naaah.” He repaid this crowd’s Muddy awareness by grinding out “19 years Old” soft , slow, and greasy, starting solo, but when the band fell in after the first verse he started to roar Muddily, banking it back down towards the end but staying low and gritty.
He decided to play through the intermission, launching into the title cut, a Hill country drone with a stiff backbeat. But he got plenty of bendy, clangy guitar in, slipping in a taste of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” as well.
She Loves Me Not” is more smooth soul, featuring a velvety falsetto offset by some wiggly, stinging guitar.
He switched to lap steel for the ominous “Tell Me Why,” his slide sounding like small arms fire as Birchwood bemoans the folly of violence and war as a hellish psychedelic nightmare.
(Photos by Grant Britt )
But he quickly lightened the mood for the evening closer, toasting the crowd with a beer brought up by a fan. “A toast, on the count of three,” he said, then shouted “Three!” took a gulp, “Three,” gulped, and shouted “Three!” again before collapsing with laughter, wiping foam from his chin.
Hoodoo Stew” was a fitting end to the night’s festivities, Birchwood reeling along a slippery bank in some backwater bayou whomping up a soul stealing, slide potion. But this is the good kind of hoodoo, when the only call for an ambulance is on his CD, a take home reminder of a memorable night’s treatment from Dr. Selwyn Birchwood.
– Grant Britt