Release date: January 29, 2021
By Mark Thompson
Photo: Jennifer Noble
It has been almost four years since guitarist Selwyn Birchwood solidified his place as one of the top artists in a new generation of blues musicians with his second Alligator Records release, Pick Your Poison, which received nominations for the Blues Blast Music award as well as the Blues Music Award in the Contemporary Blues Album category. His first release for the label, Don't Call No Ambulance, was also highly regarded, with Birchwood being named the recipient of the Blues Music Award in the Best New Artist Debut category, in addition to receiving the Blast Blast Music Award in the Sean Costello Rising Star category.
Originally inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy, Birchwood treats listeners to plenty of fiery guitar licks over arrangements that often project the feel of the dense by-waters and funky swamps of his Florida home. Guy's influence shines through on the high energy cut, “Through A Microphone,” a memorable celebration of life on the road. The opening track, “I'd Climb A Mountain,” is boisterous love song with a dark tone, courtesy of long-time band member Regi Oliver on baritone saxophone.
Early in his career, Birchwood worked in the band backing Sonny Rhodes on the road. While he played guitar, Rhodes was also an acclaimed practitioner of the lap steel guitar, an art he passed along to his eager student. When Birchwood unleashes his lap steel on the rough-hewn tale of cheating laid out on “I Got Drunk, Laid, And Stoned,” there is no doubt that he too has mastered the instrument. Further evidence is provided on “Freaks Come Out At Night,” a blistering tribute to the landmark Bradfordville Blues Club, a Florida venue with a Mississippi Trail marker honoring it's lengthy history. Birchwood's deep voice gives rise to Howlin' Wolf-like moans that play off the tightly drawn guitar licks.
The guitar lessons weren't the end of the education that Rhodes imparted. He also provided hard-earned lessons on taking care of business, how to succeed as a band leader, and equally important, the art of showmanship. Birchwood went on to get a MBA from the University of Tampa, giving him a well-rounded perspective on dealing with the music business. All three of his Alligator albums feature his stirring original compositions, and he retains the publishing rights, which many artists over the years gave away to record companies for a shot at stardom.
The depth of Birchwood's songwriting skills are apparent in the variety of musical approaches he utilizes as foundations for his explorations into the universal themes of the human experience. The title cut, with a reggae-influenced rhythm guitar line, finds him struggling to deal with a love, a world careening out of control. Oliver contributes a fine solo passage on sax. Birchwood's mood has improved considerably on “You Can't Steal My Shine,” a joyous romp that breaks down into a rapid-fire display of his six string abilities.
The rhythm section comprised of Donald “Huff” Wright, another long-time member, and drummer Walter “Squeak” Walker are a formidable team throughout the disc, especially on the burning slow blues “Searching For My Tribe,” then switching gears to deliver the goods on the soulful “She's A Dime,” with the leader offering up a heartfelt celebration of love. Thanks to studio magic, Oliver becomes a one man horn section on the track. The keyboards are in the capable hands of Walter “Bunt” May, adding poignant fills to Birchwood's arrangements, especially with the Hammond B-3 organ on the title song.
While many releases these days sport multiple appearances by guest artists that often don't add much more than some extra advertising fodder, Birchwood limits the special appearances, using producer Tom Hambridge on backing vocals on two tracks including “Revelation,” as Birchwood employs his guitar to conjure up a world full of tumult and despair. CeCe Teneal uses her marvelous voice in support of one Birchwood's strongest vocal performances on “One More Time,” an old-school R&B-styled ballad. Another standout track is “Mama Knows Best,” with Diunna Greenleaf's powerful voice taking command, making sure that there is no doubt what “Mama” is thinking!
“Happy Place,” offers up an entirely different approach. The gentle ballad finds Birchwood on acoustic guitar, closing the album with a song offering a calm, soothing respite from our troubled times. It is a dramatic turn from all that came before, but Birchwood makes it work. Rhodes always advised him to “play what's in your heart.” That is exactly what Birchwood does throughout this exciting recording that leaves no doubt that he has continued to grow his artistic vision, giving all of us much to enjoy.
Listen and buy the music: https://www.alligator.com/albums/Living-In-A-Burning-House/
About the Author: Mark Thompson lives in Bradenton, Florida and is a past president of the Suncoast Blues Society. A former Chicago area native, he also served as the president of Rockford/Byron's Crossroads Blues Society. Thompson writes for several blues publications and he served a term on the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, which hosts the annual Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge events.