Chicago’s venerable Alligator Records is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and to kick off the festivities the blues label is shining the spotlight on Selwyn Birchwood, a “new generation blues artist.” Building upon his widely acclaimed 2017 album, Pick Your Poison, Birchwood’s new release, Living in a Burning House, is his third project for the label. Across the 13 original tracks of the album, the Florida native demonstrates his phenomenal technique on both six-string and lap steel guitar, as well as his exceptional talent as a singer-songwriter and storyteller.
Not only does Birchwood expand the blues palette with his electrifying rock guitar licks and soulful vocals, but he also extends the range of the standard backing ensemble. In addition to the rhythm section led by bassist Donald “Huff” Wright, drummer Philip “Squeak” Walker, and newly added keyboardist Walter “Bunt” May (B3, Wurlitzer, piano), the band’s other secret weapon is multi-instrumentalist Regi Oliver who adds a swinging rhythm and blues vibe on baritone, tenor and alto sax with occasional solo turns on flute and piccolo. Birchwood arranged all of Regi’s horn parts, giving the bari sax a prominent voice, and he even takes an occasional spin on the glockenspiel when not playing one of his guitars.
On the album’s title track, “Living in a Burning House,” Birchwood takes listeners on an emotional journey about the difficulty of leaving a love that has gone up in flames, lamenting “my heart says leave but my legs won’t let me.” This song is a fantastic example of the band’s versatility, featuring intricately layered instrumental tracks.
One of Birchwood’s major influences was Jimi Hendrix as evidenced in his fiery guitar solo on “Revelation” which uses fuzzy psychedelic effects. The song is perhaps a parable of the times as Birchwood sings, “The horseman drawing near, feeding on flesh and fear / there’s a bounty on your soul and they’ve come to collect.” On “Searching for My Tribe,” the artist speaks to identity issues he experienced as the son of a British mother and a West Indian father. Other tracks, such as “She’s a Dime” have a swinging R&B vibe, while “One More Time” is an old school soul ballad anchored by the baritone sax bass line and melodious B3. Birchwood picks up his lap steel for “Rock Bottom,” adding a melancholy air to this tale about substance abuse. Closing the album on a mellow note, “My Happy Place” has a more acoustic, meditative quality that encourages mental well-being in this time of high anxiety.
Living in a Burning House is another superb release from Selwyn Birchwood, whose non-traditional approach to the blues is transforming the genre for the 21st century while also paying homage to artists of the past.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss