I've had the Selwyn Birchwood hooks running through my head ever since he headlined 2013's Tropical Heatwave. The homegrown blues pioneer's career has come a long way in the past 18 months; from eating Vienna sausages out of a can and selling equipment just to make the trip to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge, to winning the 2013 IBC, getting signed to Alligator Records and issuing a 12-track LP, Don't Call No Ambulance, that spurs his latest tour and will likely earn him a whole new crop of fans. Birchwood and his band are in full flight, getting ready to hit warp speed, and few things are more gratifying than seeing one of these local musicians succeed; few things other than a raucous send-off/CD release party at the Skipperdome with guest artists RJ Harmon and TC Carr & Bolts of Blue.
You knew it was going to be a harmonica-heavy night when TC and Co. kicked off the festivities with not just one harmonica but a leather belt full of harmonicas for every key. TC switched back and forth between vocals and sawing away on them with lead guitarist and local product Josh Nelms diving into rambunctious, rhythmic solos. It would have been hard to find a better warm-up group for Birchwood and it wouldn't be the last we'd see from TC or of Nelms that night.
The dance floor was nearly full at the end of TC's set and by the time Birchwood hit the stage, it was jammed with bodies pushed in close together. After the first song, Birchwood beckoned, " don't be shy, come on down where we can see you." By the second song, "River Turn Red," there wasn't a butt in a seat and we all enjoyed an early dose of Regi Oliver on baritone sax. Oliver would have no problem blowing out birthday candles the way he makes that five-foot brass contraption wail.
Three songs deep, it was already time to slow it down with "Love Me Again." While the rhythms might be slow, the energy never wanes during a Birchwood show. Maybe the two best solos of the night came during this more deliberate number, which found both Birchwood himself and Oliver going off.
Birchwood stuck to material off the new album in his first set, following with the title track, then with "She Loves Me Not," then transitioning right into 'Queen of Hearts" and "Falling From the Sky." "This is why I moved to Tampa," he commented at one point as the entire room grooved and shook it to his sounds. By the time they launched into "Tell a Lie," Birchwood had switched to lap steel guitar. The mercury rose as the band fired through the rocking instrumentals, beads of sweat a-flying as Birchwood wound up the crowd to a fever pitch. Then he and the band took a break to sign autographs and snap photos.
Before long they were back on stage, gloves off. "We talk about you [Tampa] everywhere we go," Birchwood said to the crowd. Then he invited Florida Harmonica champion RJ Harmon to the stage. It's more than coincidence that Harmon's last name is two-thirds of the very word "harmonica." Harmon set to sawing the stage in half with his blows. Soon after, Nelms was called up to the stage and Birchwood reached for his 1969 Silvertone slide guitar. By 11:30 p.m., the crowd density was waning but the energy was still hitting its summit. TC Carr came on to relieve Harmon and add some honky-tonk spice to the musical jambalaya happening on stage. For a moment, it bordered on the bacchanal, and Birchwood brought it full circle with an improvised blues narrative followed by a query ("Y'all feel like singing?"), then a rendition of, "Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright."
Birchwood is the great blues bridger-of-gaps, drawing in people from every age demographic, both the elder seasoned enthusiasts and younger rising fans with his youthful energy and undeniable chops. On this night, he more than proved his worth to the fans who helped him get his start and he expressed his appreciation at the show's close:
"Good-bye Tampa, we love you!"