Release date: June 9, 2023
By Mark Thompson
Selwyn Birchwood / photo: Marilyn Stringer
For his fourth Alligator Records release, Selwyn Birchwood serves up another all-original program that certainly lives up to the title Exorcist, as his songwriting delves deep into the vicissitudes of life, giving voice to not only his self-examinations, but also his reactions to a world spinning out of control.
One of the leading lights of his generation of blues artists, Birchwood immediately takes on the familiar theme of love gone bad with razor-sharp commentary on “Done Cryin',” his taut guitar licks hearkening memories of Albert King while delivering a vocal turn that is equal parts resignation mixed with simmering rage. Next up, “Florida Man” finds him casting cutting observations on the male population of his home state, reinforced by the brief news clips that open the song, testifying to the strangeness going on in the state, “Down where rebel flags meet Mickey mouse....a phenomenon that can't be explained....he don't drink and drive, he drinks when he's stopped at traffic lights.”
Things don't get any better for Birchwood on “Horns Below Her Halo,” finding him wrapped up in lust with a woman who may be the Devil's daughter. Despite his clear understanding as to the woman's true nature, he fails to mention any plans to escape her clutches, content to seek a measure of solace in his guitar. The proceedings slip into a deep, slippery funk groove on “Underdog,” as Birchwood recites a litany of euphemisms meant to sell him short. But he keeps his head up, proudly declaring,”Cause I thrive on doubt and this dog....bites back,” punctuated by a chilling guitar excursion.
Even the title track finds Birchwood in a bad place, willing to use any method that promises to break the spell of yet another woman with bad intentions. Finally, the musical mood lightens on the New Orleans tinged “Lazarus,” a tune with biblical foundations about the power of healing, a notion that hit home for Birchwood when his long-time band member, saxophonist Regi Oliver, had to undergo major surgery to deal with a brain tumor.
Thankfully, Oliver made it through, and has returned to being an integral part of the band's sound. Donald “Huff” Wright has been the master of the low end for over a decade, his bass guitar a consistent anchor for the band to build on. Sitting behind the drum kit, Byron “Bizzy” Garner supplies a variety of scintillating beats while Ed Krout handles the keyboards. On “Plenty More To Be Grateful For,” Krout’s Hammond organ swells take listeners to church, with Birchwood finally looking past all of the trial and tribulations outlined earlier in favor of embracing all of the good life has to offer. Noted producer Tom Hambridge once again is on board to keep the fires burning.
“Hopeless Romantic” features some fine guitar work from the leader, who once again is caught in a love affair going nowhere, knowing, “...that love has turned its back on me,” but unable to walk away from the pain. Birchwood sets the mood with his lap steel guitar on “Ila-View,” a full-blown love song to the singer's bride that employs some unusual lyrical turns, like, '..I love you like Instagram loves strippers..”
It is one of two tracks that feature backing from Josh Miller on rhythm guitar, Jim McKaba on piano, Jon Buck on drums, and Andrew Gohman from Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones on upright bass. Their other song, “Call Me What You Want To,” is a swinging affair that again finds Birchwood with another mistreating woman who enjoys more loving than he does.
The darker side of Florida pops up again on “Swim At Your Own Risk,” with the howls Birchwood elicits from his lap steel painting a spellbinding portrait of an outlaw on the run. Then the self-doubts come roaring back on “My Own Worst Enemy,” as he struggles to reach out and claim happiness as his birthright. The track features a popping bass line from Huff and Oliver acting as a one-man horn section. The disc closes on a more positive note, as Birchwood and the band tear into the driving instrumental “Show Tune.” The leader fires off some fleet-fingered six-string magic that channels the legacy of B.B. King in fine fashion.
Selwyn Birchwood has plenty to say throughout this compelling recording that exposes his self-doubt, anger, and longing for love for all to hear. Track by track, his mature perspective, the richly detailed imagery, unerring frankness, and deft musical accompaniment engage the listeners at every turn. This is contemporary blues at its finest; Exorcist is highly recommended!
About the Author: Mark Thompson lives in Bradenton, Florida and is the past president of the Suncoast Blues Society. A former Chicago area native, he also acted as the president of Rockford/Byron's Crossroads Blues Society. Thompson writes for many blues publications and served on the Board for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, which hosts the annual Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge events.