Selwyn Birchwood is an old soul. But only 36 of his years have been spent on Earth. Prior to that, the singer/guitarist must have been wandering the cosmos soaking up the ghostly DNA of a passel of iconic blues purveyors. For Living in a Burning House, his third Alligator release, Birchwood once again lets some of that blue cosmic wanderlust leach out for a raucous, rowdy, soul-drenched celebration of good times, bad women, and temptations that both overcome and are conquered.
“The souls in the soil still moan and groan and the ghosts in the walls still sing this song,” Birchwood intones on “Freaks Come Out at Night.” But he’s not talking about the zombie apocalypse, a vampire invasion, or a swamp thang infestation. The freaks in question here are folks of the blues persuasion who come out to celebrate the music with age-old rituals involving comfort food, alcohol, and fanciful footwork on a juke-joint dancefloor.
Sounding like a raspier, less county-oriented version of former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker, Birchwood accompanies himself on lap steel and electric guitar, galvanizing audiences with his innovative, muscular style.
He shifts gears smoothly, slipping into his soul crooner shoes for “She’s a Dime,” with tantalizing hints of The Temptations and snippets of Smokey Robinson laid over a big band backdrop delivered with a Rucker rasp.
Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer speculates that “Searching for My Tribe” is Birchwood looking for his place in society as the son of British mother and West Indian father, but it could just as well be the artist rebelling against being boxed into a specific category for his eclectic musical wanderings, as his accompanying guitar journey to uncharted galaxies belies any blues-binding straps or buckles.
If you’re gonna sling some payback around, might as well go all in, as Birchwood gets some get-even action on “I Got Drunk, Laid and Stoned,” giving some get-back to his former love who staggered in disheveled and coated in lies at 9 in the morning after doing the very thang he’s gonna hurl back at her on a greasy slide platter.
From the Robert Cray-tinged title cut to the shape-shifting, genre-busting “Mama Knows Best,” featuring Diunna Greenleaf doing a very credible Etta James impersonation, Birchwood keeps his audience enthralled, agitated, and ready for a return engagement.