A child of the 1990s, Selwyn Birchwood didn’t grow up with the blues.
Like his peers in Orlando, Florida, he listened to the era’s mainstream music, not the sounds of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy or John Lee Hooker.
At 13, Birchwood picked up a guitar and learned songs by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But, in a year or two, grunge rock started to bore him.
Hearing Jimi Hendrix, the electric guitar great who returned to the blues even during his rock stardom, rekindled Birchwood’s enthusiasm for music. “He’s been a gateway for younger people, because all his influences were the older blues guys,” said Birchwood, 29, a Tampa-based blues artist who’s performing Saturday at the Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Festival in New Orleans’ Lafayette Square Park.
Initially, Hendrix was just a silent name that appeared in the guitar magazines Birchwood read.
“Everybody was saying that this one person is the best guitarist, a guitar god, and all the other labels they gave Hendrix,” he remembered. “I was like, ‘Let me see what this is about.’ ”
Upon hearing Hendrix’s albums, the late singer-guitarist’s uniqueness struck Birchwood most of all.
“Everybody’s heard ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Wind Cries Mary,’ ” he said. “But the obscure tunes on his albums, I couldn’t understand where they were coming from. He mixed so many different styles into his Hendrix gumbo and came up with a sound all his own.”
When Buddy Guy, a Chicago blues star known as one of Hendrix’s influences, played a concert in Orlando, Birchwood arrived early and stood front and center.
“I was blown away by the raw emotion and power of Buddy Guy’s vocals and guitar playing,” he said. “It affected me for two, three days after that. I woke up in the morning, like, ‘Wow, what was that?’ I decided that whatever that was, that’s what I wanna do.”
Birchwood dug into Guy’s recordings, records by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Albert King as well as later generation, blues-loving stars Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer.
As for Vaughan and Mayer, “younger people will find John Mayer, and then find Buddy Guy and B.B. King through him,” Birchwood said. “It’s good when you see artists who’ve broken through point back to the originators of the music.”
It’s possible that rising singer and guitarist Birchwood, winner of the 2013 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, is influencing young people to pick up the blues torch.
Chicago’s Alligator Records released his debut for the label, “Don’t Call No Ambulance,” in June. He also tours extensively.
The time that he and his band spend on stage is always the best part of their day, Birchwood said.
“That’s why we do all the driving and hauling equipment. That’s as much excitement as I need, just getting up and playing music. So that’s the happiest you’ll see us.”