Selwyn Birchwood ‘Living In A Burning House’ Album Review

Recently nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Male Artist by the prestigious Blues Music Awards, Selwyn Birchwood has just released his third album, entitled Living In A Burning House. And a fine, fiery album it is, with strong underpinnings of the fretboard mastery displayed by his early guitar heroes, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix.

Backed by Regi Oliver on baritone sax and Walter “Bunt” May on keyboards, as well as Donald “Huff” Wright on bass and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums, Birchwood exudes power and grace on the guitar. Equally adept on lap-steel and slide guitars, he brings a soulful energy to his highly articulate playing. He calls his music “electric swamp funkin’ blues”.

He’s 35 years old, the son of a British mother and Tobago father, and grew up in Orlando, Florida. He gained early attention as a talented axeman  back in 2013 when he was the winner of the Blues Foundation’s 2013 International Blues Challenge, as well the winner of the Albert King Guitarist of the Year award. He credits his early blues success to what he learned as a touring member of the band backing bluesman Sonny Rhodes. Sonny hired Selwyn straight out of high school.

What further strengthens Birchwood’s offering is his talent as a singer: the bluesy earthiness and natural quality of his voice brings conviction to every line of every lyric. The material is his own and it has a distinct storybook quality to the lyrics, particularly in the title cut, which relates the tale of a man who can’t leave his house, though it is burning down around him.  The song sounds plain lived-in, with no doubt that Selwyn himself has experienced this despair.

According to Birchwood, “I tell my stories in my own way, with my own voice. You won’t ever hear me on stage telling someone else’s story. Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker all told their own stories. That’s what I’m doing.”

“Searching For My Tribe” continues in this confessional vein, with the moving lyric lines “I’ve always been a loner,  but never liked being alone”.  The ballad “One More Time” is as powerful as anything that Solomon Burke ever recorded; it has the potential of being a future blues classic. The lyrics are unadorned, but the conviction in Birchwood’s voice is strongly supported by his own striking guitar solo, as well as  the gorgeous baritone sax work from Regi Oliver. Together they make this tune a real standout.

“They say everything is better when it’s made with love. That’s how we play our music and that’s how we made the new album. I want my audience to say, ‘I know exactly what that feels like,’ when a song hits them. Because that’s when it stops just being music and starts being medicine. After all, we are all stricken with the condition of being human.” ~ Selwyn Birchwood

Most blues fans will probably treasure this album for Birchwood’s display of guitar prowess, but for this listener the pleasures of his vocals are the real highlight.

Highly recommended.