Selwyn Birchwood seems to be a bluesman of many faces — an overnight success, a seasoned performer, a fiery new blues star, the new face of the blues, a veteran blues road warrior, a skilled guitarist, an inventive songwriter.
If he can take several years to be an overnight success, if he can be a seasoned performer at 36, if he can put together a finely tuned band and produce great music on his own terms, then he is all of those things. And has been for about half of his relatively young life.
Birchwood’s music was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. and mentored by veteran blues guitarist Sonny Rhodes, like Birchwood a lap-steel player, when he took Birchwood on the road with his band at age 19.
All of that road and album cred is obvious on his latest album, “Living In A Burning House,” (Alligator Records), his third for the label since 2014, following two self-released CDs — “FL Boy” from 2011 and “Road Worn” from 2013.” It’s set for release Friday, Jan. 29.
Birchwood’s style here flows easily from the funkiness of “You Can’t Steal My Shine” to the playful swing of “She’s a Dime” to the down-home flavor of “Mama Knows Best” (with Diunna Greenleaf as red-hot Mama) to the acoustic calm of “My Happy Place” to the fierce blues-rock of “Through a Microphone.” In other words, he’s not only comfortable with music across the blues spectrum, he lives within it.
The songs are all deeply original, from inventive lyrics to creative musical arrangements. The inclusion of a single horn player in the band adds a distinctly different feel, with Regi Oliver a versatile saxman who also wields a flute. A little bluesy B3 doesn’t hurt, either. There’s an organ born with the blues.
Also in this crisp, tight band are Donald “Huff” Wright, bass; Philip “Squeak” Walker, drums; Walter “Bunt” May, B3, Wurlitzer, piano.
This outing was produced by the steady and creative hand of the seemingly ever-present Tom Hambridge, who has amplified recent recordings by Buddy Guy.
I’ve had to catch up a little bit on Birchwood, since his success has come largely during my blogging hiatus. Going through his other Alligator albums shows that his latest didn’t just suddenly appear. He’s been working at this level for years.
And in one of those mystical, bluesified musical experiences, the Sonny Rhodes mentioned above also popped up in my two previous posts on documentary films (just scroll down, after you’re done here, of course) on the history of Oakland, Calif., blues, where Rhodes was a major player for many years.
In fact, Rhodes called himself a disciple of the blues, and wore a turban with a big fine jewel in front to make the title work. Until, he said, someone at a show called him a terrorist.
“There were too many threats while I was wearing that turban that I had worn for 34 years! You don’t know what it’s like to have a .38 [pistol] put to your head!” he once told the Kankakee (Ill.) Daily Journal.
But I digress. This is about the blues prowess of Selwyn Birchwood.
For years now, people like me (have mercy on their souls) have been writing about the future of the blues. Who will replace the blues players who brought the real deal from the South and spread it around the country? Most of them are gone.
Well, nobody can really replace the people who carried the blues in their souls from Mississippi to Chicago.
But artists like Selwyn Birchwood can easily carry the torch that they lit.
Here’s the title track from “Living In A Burning House”:
Album track list (All songs by Selwyn Birchwood):
1. I’d Climb Mountains
2. I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned
3. Living in a Burning House
4. You Can’t Steal My Shine
6. Searching For My Tribe
7. She’s a Dime
8. One More Time
9. Mama Knows Best
10. Freaks Come Out at Night
11. Through a Microphone
12. Rock Bottom
13. My Happy Place
And just for fun, here’s a taste of Sonny Rhodes:
Since I wrote this post, Alligator Records has released a two-part interview with Selwyn Birchwood and Tom Hambridge by Alligator honcho Bruce Iglauer.
Here they are: