Ernest Hooper: Gaining new appreciation for local talent from performance in San Francisco

Blues musician Selwyn Birchwood of Carrollwood, who plays guitar barefoot, performed in San Francisco recently. [ERNEST HOOPER   |   Times]
Blues musician Selwyn Birchwood of Carrollwood, who plays guitar barefoot, performed in San Francisco recently. [ERNEST HOOPER | Times]
Published October 3 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — I found myself trekking through the hustle and bustle of this city's famous Nob Hill neighborhood with a group of friends last week, and little reminded me of home.

Born and raised in Tallahassee, the five of us — the fellas forever — traversed the hills, and strolled with eyes wide open as an array of folks purposely walked with that gritty look you can only find in a busy downtown.

Not far from Union Square, around the corner from the iconic Starlight Room, down the way from the Fairmont Hotel once featured in the television series Hotel (yes, I had a crush on Shari Belafonte), we stepped into a place befitting the big city feel of San Francisco.

Biscuits and Blues, nestled between a Jack In The Box and a Mongolian eatery and sporting a checkerboard exterior, welcomed us with downtown panache. Down the stairs and into the bowels of a place that just oozed cool, we dined on New Orleans-style cuisine and prepared for the night's show.

When the barefoot guitarist took the stage with his three bandmates, I could ask myself only one question.

Why did I have to come to the other bay to discover Selwyn Birchwood when I could just as easily have applauded his talents while downing a Red Stripe in the relaxing warmth of Skipper's Smokehouse or kicking back in the laid-back vibe of the Palladium in downtown St. Petersburg?

Birchwood, who has drawn praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, stands as a rising talent in the blues world, and not just because his '70s-style fro adds at least three inches to his height. He's played Las Vegas, Chicago, New Orleans and select cities in France and Belgium.

Yet the University of Tampa graduate calls Carrollwood home, and you're just as likely to see him at Safety Harbor's Songfest as the Montrose Summer Music Festival in Colorado. As he went through his set — all original songs and several from his latest album, Pick Your Poison — he dazzled the audience.

Equally adept on lap steel and guitar, Birchwood and his band — saxophonist Regi Oliver, bassist Huff Wright and drummer Courtney "Big Love" Girlie — proved they can entertain in any venue, be it a city bar or country inn. With a soulful voice, he delivers lyrical chapters from his life and then accentuates them with musical touches that run the gamut of the musical spectrum.

The title track comes with a smokey funk reminiscent of James Brown, while Don't Call No Ambulance bounced with rockabilly feel. In other songs like Love Me Again, Birchwood honed a little closer to traditional blues. You'll find Mississippi backwoods, Memphis soul and Chicago grit on his musical map.

But perhaps Birchwood's music is best defined by its lack of definition. He introduced one song by telling the audience some people spend too much time trying to categorize music and not enough time listening.

When I connected with him a couple of days later, I asked Birchwood to elaborate on that thought.

"It’s been my experience that people who aren’t necessarily blues fans, especially younger people, like the music, as long as you don’t tell them it is blues music," Birchwood wrote in a message. "It seems that the word 'blues' elicits an automatic image and connotation of old grandpas playing 'old people music,' which turns them off.

"I feel like if the music was welcomed as just music, rather than forcing it into a genre, that those sounds will be more accepted."

At the same time, Birchwood says he bristles when so-called blues lovers express disdain at his unique musical stew because it didn't fit squarely into the Muddy Waters/John Lee Hooker/B.B. King box.

"All of those guys were creating new sounds of their own," Birchwood wrote. "The music would have never left the sounds of the plantation if it was approached the way it is now. ... We would only have Robert Johnson.

"Can you imagine if the majority shunned their sounds and said that’s not how Robert Johnson did it?"

Birchwood delivered not only an entertaining show, but a lesson on musical appreciation. Too often, I seek out the shows of artists I already love. But true music lovers must open their minds and push themselves beyond the familiar.

Next time Birchwood shows up in Tampa Bay, don't hesitate to show up. You don't have to go out of town to enjoy the musical journey he's sure to deliver.

That's all I'm saying.