On fire: Selwyn Birchwood is ‘Living In A Burning House’

Michael Smyth / Tahoe Onstage
Regi Oliver and Selwyn Birchwood at the Crystal Bay Casino in 2017.
Michael Smyth / Tahoe Onstage

Selwyn Birchwood has a message for the pandemic: “You Can’t Steal My Shine.
That’s the title to one of the many standout songs from the album, “Living In A Burning House,” which will be released on Friday.

Birchwood might not appear in your town for a while, but the 13-track, all-original album is an authentic representation of his high-energy live show. That’s by design and maturity. Baritone saxophonist Regi Oliver has played with Birchwood more than 12 years, bassist Donald “Huff” Wright more than nine. Veteran drummer Philip “Squeak” Walker joined a couple of years ago. The band added a keyboardist, Walter “Bunt” May, for the album and as a permanent member.

“Living In A Burning House” was to be released in May 2020 and to be followed with a full year of concerts, including three Europe tours and numerous festivals. Joe Bonamassa’s Mediterranean blues cruise has been rescheduled to Aug. 17-22, 2021. Instead, the third Alligator Records album comes out Jan. 29. Previous releases were “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2014) and “Pick Your Poison” (2016). Bright Florida orange vinyl is one of the options for the latest.

Tom Hambridge, who also makes records for Buddy Guy, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Susan Tedeschi, is the producer. Houston’s Diunna Greenleaf is the first guest singer to appear on any Birchwood album, playing in a humorous back-and-forth dialogue, “Mama Knows Best.”

Other highlights include a Hill Country groove released as a single last week, “Freaks Come Out At Night,” the aforementioned indefatigable “Can’t Steal My Shine,” and a blues with a rock beat, “I Got Drunk Laid And Stoned.” The title song, “Living In A Burning House,” was released in September and has nearly 200,000 plays on Spotify, the most in Birchwood’s career.

From ages 19-25, Birchwood toured as a guitarist for Sonny Rhodes, who taught him the lap steel after their evening shows. Birchwood plays this instrument throughout the album, which along with his smoky vocals and Oliver’s funky, deep sax make for a unique, bursting sound.

Birchwood is among a handful of rising young genuine blues artists, a litany that includes Kingfish Ingram, Jontavious Wills and Marquise Knox.

Q&A with Selwyn Birchwood

Photo by Ivy Neville

After his daily jog across alligator-laden creek beds, Birchwood answered some questions for Tahoe Onstage.

The core of your band has been intact for a long time. That must make session work go smoothly.

These guys have really stuck and stayed with me though a lot. When did it become a thing when a show is just a pickup band? What you hear on the record is what you are going to hear live. I think it’s more honest in that sense.

“Living In A Burning House” is a fantastic album, each song with that Selwyn Birchwood sound. Is that what you were seeking to do?

Some people say it doesn’t sound like B.B. or Muddy Waters. Yeah, I am trying to find my own sound. With this record I think we’ve finally found our own sound and I think people are really going to dig what they hear on this album. I want to tell my own story with my own voice in my own way. … Reviews are saying it’s the best album we’ve done and I think it’s going to make some noise.

The album concludes with its only ballad. Is being onstage your “Happy Place?”

People ask why I smile so much when I play. I call it “My Happy Place.” It’s my form of therapy, my form of expression and it’s my form of happiness. It’s what I enjoy doing. If I was on a desert island, I’d be doing the same thing that I’m doing right now. I just try to share that love and passion with the audience.

How did you connect with esteemed producer Tom Hambridge?

We crossed paths on the road several time because he was playing drums for Buddy Guy. I learned he’d written a lot of songs that I’ve enjoyed. When I sent him the songs, it seemed like his ears kind of perked up and he was interested in getting in on this project. He has three Grammys. It’s an asset to have someone with that kind of expertise.

“Through A Microphone” has a recognizable guitar style. Who is your favorite Albert?

All of them. I am a huge Albert King fan. I’m a huge Albert Collins fan. You’ve got to have ears on all of those guys.

You posted a photo of an alligator on Facebook. Is that the local variety or a rep from your record company in Chicago?

I was born and raised in Florida and I see alligators every day. Lot of people on Facebook not privy to that. Not everybody gets within 6 feet of an alligator just about every day. We’re on the same schedule. When I’m out there running, he’s out there sunning.

When you were a teenager and discovered Jimi Hendrix, what licks did you try to emulate and how did that help you as a guitarist?

I never tried to emulate Jimi Hendrix. I learned a few of his popular songs and I feel that’s just a staple, if you are going to be a guitar player you need to go and listen to and learn a certain amount of Jimi Hendrix because he was such a fascinating guy. But people get stuck in the guitar pyrotechnics aspect of it and they overlook the creativity. That’s really what sparked my interest. It’s the approach that he took. Even today I don’t think you can listen to the Jimi Hendrix catalogue and put him in a specific genre of music. He melded a bunch of stuff together and was brave enough to put his own sound and voice out there.

How are you adjusting to not playing shows?

It’s been tough. We were on the road two-three weeks every month, a different city every night, different place every day and you go from that to pretty much stuck at home, not being able to connect with people, not being able to perform. I talked to a lot of musicians and aside from the financial burden people are having a tough time, man. It’s really emotionally and mentally draining. You spend your whole life to get to the point where you are touring a performing and it’s taken away in an instant with no end in sight at the moment. It’s really a hard pill to swallow. We are at least able to get the album out now and at least get people’s ears on what we’ve really been pouring our hearts into for the past four years.

ALCD 4999

Selwyn Birchwood
‘Living in a Burning House’
Label:
Alligator Records
Release: Jan. 29, 2021

1. Id Climb Mountains 3:31
2. I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned 3:32
3. Living in a Burning House 4:07
4. You Cant Steal My Shine 3:54
5. Revelation 2:50
6. Searching For My Tribe 4:19
7. Shes a Dime 3:59
8. One More Time 4:31
9. Mama Knows Best 4:38
10. Freaks Come Out at Night 4:40
11. Through a Microphone 3:24
12. Rock Bottom 3:09
13. My Happy Place 3:43
All songs by Selwyn Birchwood, Selwyn Birchwood Music adm. by Eyeball Music, BMI

Selwyn Birchwood Vocals, Guitar, Lap Steel, Glockenspiel
Regi Oliver Baritone Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Piccolo Flute
Donald Huff Wright Bass
Philip Squeak Walker Drums
Walter Bunt May B3, Wurlitzer, Piano with
Tom Hambridge Background Vocals on “Searching For My Tribe” and “Revelation,” Tambourine, Chimes
Diunna Greenleaf Vocals on “Mama Knows Best”
CeCe Teneal Background Vocals on “One More Time”
Produced by Tom Hambridge All songs and arrangements by Selwyn Birchwood Recorded at Phat Planet Studios, Orlando, FL Engineered by Aaron Gandia and Peter Lutringer Mixed and Mastered by Tom Hambridge and Michael Saint-Leon at Switchyard Recording Studio, Nashville, TN Photos by Ivy Neville Packaging Design by Kevin Niemiec Executive Producer: Bruce Iglauer

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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