Selwyn Birchwood, Jarekus Singleton infuse the blues

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 Selwyn Birchwood

Blues guitarist Selwyn Birchwood (Len Umhoefer / July 24, 2014)

Selwyn Birchwood and Jarekus Singleton did not grow up thinking they were going to play the blues. But both young guitarists – Birchwood is 29, Singleton just turned 30 – unexpectedly found a form of personal inspiration and salvation in the blues, and now they're considered two of its rising stars with new albums on Chicago-based Alligator Records.

It's a daunting task for any musician trying to build on a century-long tradition in a meaningful and distinctive way, but both artists are finding their voice by putting in the hours on the road (hundreds of shows a year for both) and in the recording studio. Both had a couple of self-released recordings before signing with Alligator.

"It's intimidating if you think about it that way," says Birchwood, a Florida native whose "Don't Call No Ambulance" album is stirring up some action on commercial radio formats with its driving, uptempo take on various blues styles. "So much great music came before, and everyone is striving to find his own voice within that. The only way I can deal with that is by writing my own songs and giving my own perspective. It weirds me out when I hear other people my age singing, 'Born in Chicago in 1941 … My first friend went down when I was 17 years old." No, they didn't! But when you sing from your heart and what you've gone through and what you're about, that's when you can step out and get your own personality into it. That's very much what we try to do with this band. We have a good start with this record toward finding that voice."

Singleton, whose Alligator debut "Refuse to Lose" is built on heavily autobiographical lyrics woven into blues tracks streaked with gospel, soul and even hip-hop textures, concurs that his music has to be personal or it won't work. "All those genres, from hip-hop to Motown, are mixed together, and I never fight with it," he says. "That's who I am, that's what I heard growing up. Ideas come at the most inopportune times. I was driving from a show in Maine last night, and some lyrics came to me, so I had to pull over and jot them down at a gas station. I was signing autographs the other day, and a phrase came to me while I had a Sharpie in my hand, and so I wrote it down on my arm."

Both artists had blues epiphanies in their boyhood. While Birchwood was growing up in Orlando, Fla., he would travel several hours with friends or family to see shows in other parts of the state. At 17, he caught Buddy Guy in concert for the first time and there was no turning back.

"Buddy's acoustic album had just come out ('Blues Singer' in 2003), and he did a few songs with just voice and guitar," Birchwood recalls. "I was front and center and was struck by how charismatic and entertaining he was. To sing with that much power, energy and affection just blew me away. I didn't know he was playing the blues, but I knew that's what I wanted to be."

It set Birchwood on a path where a couple years later he was introduced to lap-steel player Sonny Rhodes, and the veteran blues man invited the youngster to join his band as a guitarist. "He showed me the lifestyle, how to be a band leader, how to act, what to say, what not to do," Birchwood says. "I wanted to do exactly what he was doing. I wasn't the best guitar player, and I'm still not, but he took me on because he said I reminded him of himself at my age."

Birchwood went on to gain a master's degree in business in Tampa, but would play regularly on weekends and during the summer with Rhodes. He later formed his own band in the city, and gigs came quickly. Unlike Orlando, the guitarist says, Tampa has a vibrant blues scene and he was able to develop as a musician and songwriter through constant regional gigging before attracting the attention of Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer.

Now that he's on the road touring behind an acclaimed album, he feels a sense of responsibility to his audience. "From the day I saw Buddy Guy for the first time, I've been doing exactly what I want to do," he says. "Eventually, I want to give people what I received at that show. If I can give even 5 percent of that to someone, I'll be happy."

Singleton similarly was inspired by hearing a blues great in person while growing up in Clinton, Miss. He had been singing and playing in gospel settings with his churchgoing family since he was 9 years old. But one of his most vivid memories was seeing Albert King perform "I'll Play the Blues for You" in concert.

"Albert was singing about if you're down and out, 'All your loneliness I'll try to soothe / I'll play the blues for you / Ain't got no big name, I ain't no star / I'll play the blues for you on this here guitar,' " Singleton says, nearly singing the lyrics that meant so much to him. "He made me feel like we were both regular dudes. He was 'no big star,' but he just wanted to soothe me, connect with me. That lyrical line gravitated me toward Albert and the blues."

But Singleton was also an accomplished basketball player, and he went on to become the second leading scorer in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics while a senior in 2006-07 at William Carey University in Mississippi. He went on to play professionally overseas in Lebanon, but later badly damaged his ankle and was on crutches for 18 weeks. He was so depressed that he reached for his guitar and immediately conjured an old friend.

"The first song I played was 'I'll Play the Blues for You,' and I thought about that line about when you're down and out. Because I was hurt, emotionally and physically, it really spoke to me." Within a few months, Singleton put together a band and left basketball behind for music.

"I made a decision to start a band because that song helped me out emotionally," he says. "I thought if I can play these songs with a band, this could help me get out of my depression. And it worked."

Now that's earning a reputation as a rising blues musician, Singleton laughs when asked about bucking the gospel tradition in his family. "If granddaddy were still around, he'd be trying to kill me for playing that guitar," he says. "I'd be in the paper: 'Preacher slays grandson.' My grandma is not too happy about my missing church to play blues around the country. But my momma always told me to follow my dreams. I'm doing what God put me here to do."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 8 p.m. July 31

Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston

Tickets: $22; evanstonspace.com

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