Singer-songwriter electric and lap steel guitarist Selywn Birchwood delivers his third album, Living in a Burning House, for Alligator Records. He is one of the most appealing of the young vanguard of blues musicians keeping the music alive while melding in some other forms of roots music in the process. Birchwood calls his original music “electric swamp funkin’ blues,” defined by raw and soulful musicianship. His soulful vocals draw his audience deep inside his colorful tales of passion, pain, and pleasure in a contemporary context. Part of this appeal traces to a rather unique configuration for his band. Beyond the two guitars that Birchwood plays, the other featured instrument is Regi Oliver’s baritone sax. (Oliver also plays tenor, alto, and piccolo flute on the album). The group is rounded out by bassist Donald “Huff” Wright, drummer Philip “Squeak” Walker, and newly added keyboardist Walter “Bunt” May, whose sounds help differentiate this from the leader’s two previous releases. Vocalist Diunna Greenleaf guests on “Mama Knows Best.”
Those who have seen Birchwood’s band live likely have the indelible image of the 6’3” musician with his trademark Afro roaming the stage, ripping out memorable guitar licks with ease, his soulful, gravelly vocals sparking the crowd. He also brings a level of intimacy when he sits in a chair, pouring out piercing lines from his lap steel, an audience favorite who delivers an exciting show consistently. Alligator founder and president Bruce Iglauer says, “It’s especially appropriate that we start the year with a release by a “new generation” blues artist. Since I founded Alligator in 1971, the label has been dedicated to bringing the best younger bluesmen and women into the international spotlight. I knew Selwyn was one of those artists from the first time I saw him, in 2012 when he competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. I was immediately impressed by how this young Floridian ruled the stage, strolling barefoot (he hates shoes) while playing searing solos and singing in his rough-edged voice. He carried himself like a musician with years of experience. Selwyn made it to the finals that year but didn’t win. He returned in 2013 to win the Challenge (beating 150 other bands) and also won the Albert King Award for Best Guitarist at the event. By then, we were already talking with Selwyn about his joining the Alligator family.
For these sessions, Birchwood enlisted Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Susan Tedeschi) to produce. Recorded in Birchwood’s home state of Florida, the album features 13 songs written and arranged by Birchwood. Be assured, as per the bent of both leader and producer, there’s plenty of blues-rock here beginning with the rocking opener “I’d Climb Mountains.” Then we get the crowd-pleaser “I Got Drunk, Laid, and Stoned,” the title of which is cringe-worthy considering how the forbears sang about similar subjects less directly, with clever use of double entendres. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The keyboard/guitar-driven funky title track speaks to another common blues theme, love gone bad.
The joyous “You Can’t Steal My Shine” and the rather alarming “Revelation” both throb, while the slow burner “Rock Bottom” speaks to substance abuse. We get more danceable party grooves in the much warmer horn slathered “She’s a Dime” and the lap steel fueled “Freaks Come Out At Night” further dials up the party vibe. “Searching For My Tribe,” a standout track ,speaks to dislocation in this divisive world, maybe even more sharply in Birchwood’s case, feeling like a cultural outcast as the son of a British mother and a West Indian father.
The ballad “One More Time,” enriched by Oliver’s bari solo, is a sweet spot in the best sequence on the album, the four cuts extending from “Searching For My Tribe” through “She’s A Dime” to this one and the rousing duet with the inimitable “I know what I’m talking about’ Greenleaf on “Mama Knows Best.” “Through a Microphone” is a guitar rave-up with a frenetic shuffle groove and the closer “My Happy Place” is a sparer piece, with Birchwood singing alone with his guitar with light organ layered in before Oliver joins in with a brief passage and an emphatic final note. It’s a fitting end as it sounds so different from everything else preceding it.
Not every blues musician is able to forge that great balance between musician and entertainer like Birchwood has. Even some of the best fall into one of the two camps. Birchwood is genuine, playing and singing what he knows about. There’s no pretension. It comes across here as well as it does in his live performances.