Selwyn Birchwood | Living in a Burning House | (Alligator)
4 out of 5 stars
“You can’t steal my shine,” sings young Florida based blues guitarist Selwyn Birchwood on the title track named of his third Alligator release. He need not worry; no one in blues compares to him.
That’s because there aren’t any MBA graduate guitarists who specialize in lap steel, have a full time baritone saxist in their band and play barefoot, let alone in contemporary blues. Oh, and don’t perform covers. “You won’t ever hear me on stage singing someone else’s songs,” he says in the notes from his first album in three years, something few others in his genre would proudly admit. But with the quality of his material, combined with a vibrant stage persona, there’s no need to borrow tunes from the greats who went before him. That includes even music from his mentor, the terrific, if under-appreciated, Sonny Rhodes, one of the first to popularize the lap steel in blues.
“I’m serious as a heart attack,” he exclaims on the opening “I’d Climb Mountains.” When Birchwood bellows in a gruff voice somewhere between Southside Johnny and Lowell George, he means business. This fresh blues pulses and stings, urged on by Regi Oliver’s baritone sax (he also contributes tenor and alto along with flute) and new keyboardist Walter May, who bolsters and thickens Birchwood’s already sturdy attack. Between songs like the powerful “Revelation,” with lyrics— “Four horsemen drawing near/Feeding on flesh and fear/There’s a bounty on the souls /And they’ve come to collect”—that seem plucked from this month’s headlines, and more personal reflections such as “Searching for My Tribe” (“They want to put you in a box so you’ll be square like them”), Birchwood balances clever concepts with authoritative playing and stinging solos.
Veteran producer Tom Hambridge handles the boards, keeping the full sound lean yet mean, allowing each instrument room in the mix. Birchwood shifts to soul on the swinging “She’s a Dime,” which owes a nod to The Temptations’ Motown classic “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and goes full swamp by double tracking his six string and lap steel drilling through the Delta-styled dark boogie of “Freaks Come Out at Night” as Oliver’s baritone honks away. It’s the set’s toughest cut.
Elsewhere on “Mama Knows Best,” Birchwood tells the story of his mom cautioning against getting involved with a “pretty little girl.” Singer Diunna Greenleaf guests to play the husky voiced mother warning him “Listen to your mama when she’s telling you/That girl will be the death of you,” and of course we find out she was right on this tough and humorous shuffle. The rugged “Rock Bottom” returns to the swamp as he sings in a voice of someone at the end of their rope—“I’m sitting here begging/At rock bottom/I’m sitting here crying, ‘Lord! Please save me!’”—on the disc’s most lyrically and musically intense moment.
The usually hard touring Birchwood used this pandemic time off the road to create his finest release, one sure to be on many 2021 blues Best Of lists. It’s the mark of a true iconoclast, especially in his field, that Living in a Burning House‘s 13 songs pay tribute to his influences without sounding like any of them.