Selwyn Birchwood – Living in a Burning House
Alligator Records ALCD 4999
13 songs – 51 minutes
Selwyn Birchwood takes his musical message to an entirely new level with this powerful set, a mature, all-original collection that fulfills – and more — the promise he showed early in his career that’s already been littered with awards.
A Florida native who was born in Orlando and is based out of Tampa, he’s a former International Blues Challenge and Blues Music Award winner for new artist of the year as well as an Albert King Award honoree as best guitarist at the IBCs. And this CD, should cement him permanently in the upper echelon of the music.
The son of immigrants from the West Indies and United Kingdom, Birchwood picked up his first guitar at age 13. Initially inspired by Jimi Hendrix, he’s been dedicated to the blues since age 17 with influences that range from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Albert Collins to Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy as well as lap-steel superstar Sonny Rhodes.
Birchwood met Rhodes – a longtime Californian – at age 19 when Sonny became a neighbor after relocating to Florida. They connected immediately, and Sonny was so impressed by Selwyn’s talent even at that early age that he invited him to join him on tour during breaks from college, expanding the youngster’s guitar skills and teaching him valuable lessons about running a band and more.
An excellent student – Birchwood possesses an MBA degree from The University of Tampa, Selwyn formed his own band in 2011 and released two CDs – FL Boy and RoadWorn – prior to making his Alligator debut with Don’t Call No Ambulance in 2014. This is their third release on the label with the same lineup that delivered Pick Your Poison in 2017. They’re all business here, expanding their familiar sound by adding a keyboard player to the mix and Birchwood contributing glockenspiel as well as six-string, lap steel and his usual stellar vocals.
Recorded at Phat Planet Studios in Orlando and mixed and produced by Tom Hambridge who mastered it with Michael Saint-Leon at Switchyard Recording Studio in Nashville, the disc features Regi Oliver on baritone, tenor and alto sax and piccolo flute with Donald “Huff” Wright on bass and Philip “Squeak” Walker on drums. They’re augmented by newcomer Walter “Bunt” May on keys with guest appearances from Diunna Greenleaf and CeCe Teneal, who provide vocals on one cut each. Hambridge adds tambourine, chimes and backing vocals on two cuts.
“I’d Climb Mountains” fires out of the gate to open the energetic 13-tune set. It’s a driving blues in which the singer insists he’s as “serious as a heart attack” that he’d do anything necessary to get to his lady’s side. Heavy percussion alternates with guitar fills for “I Got Drunk, Laid and Stoned” as it describes a woman with serious issues – a message that continues the funkified “Living in a Burning House,” in which Selwyn notes: “My heart says ‘leave,’ but my legs won’t let me.”
The mood brightens with the hard-driving “You Can’t Steal My Shine,” which is constructed around the repeated lyric, then darkens again with “Revelation,” which is accented by lyrical and musical dissonance as the truth of the situation becomes clear. The storm clouds dissipate with “Searching for My Tribe,” a minor-key blues-rocker, as Selwyn states having to be always on guard against folks who want to stylistically confine him to a box, and “She’s a Dime,” a sweet, behind-the-beat tribute to a special lady delivered in classic soul-blues style.
The pace slows for “One More Time,” the first ballad in the set, with Birchwood shining vocally as he describes a bittersweet relationship that’s at a crossroads. Next up, the blues “Mama Knows Best” finds him bringing home a lady for the first time and his mother – voiced by Diunna – powerfully expressing disapproval and insisting “that woman will be the death of you”…something, Selwyn admits, that it took years before realizing she spoke the truth.
Four more pleasers — “Freaks Come Out at Night,” which comes with a Hill Country/North Florida feel, the high-test blues-rocker “Through a Microphone,” “Rock Bottom,” a funky complaint, and “My Happy Place,” a quiet ballad that celebrates returning home to comfort and love – bring the disc to a close.
Well-conceived from the jump and delivered with aplomb, Living in a Burning House is Selwyn and company’s best effort yet. Pick it up – and thank me later!