I had only once before seen Raleigh-based American Aquarium. (The rather unusual-sounding band name actually comes from a line in a Wilco song.) This was back in 2010 when they were part of a marathon six-hour “Gram National” concert celebrating the music of Mr. Parsons at East Nashville’s Five Spot. (They squeezed “Streets of Baltimore” into a set of nine originals.) A lot sure has happened to this band since then, and the fact that they are still with us is cause for celebration.
After recording the Jason Isbell-produced “farewell to this crazy music business” record, Burn. Flicker. Die. in 2012, things started to take off for the band making them change their mind about calling it quits. This then led up to considerable current acclaim for their fabulous latest LP, Wolves.
Wearing a collared-shirt, pressed slacks and shoes, were it not for two forearms full of tattoos, front man B.J. Barham could easily be mistaken for an office professional dressed in business casual attire. Looks aside, B.J. is one clever songwriter and dynamic performer. He has a razor sharp and direct delivery that keeps you hanging on every word. The band’s tough times and his personal struggles have turned into subject matter for some great tunes. Hear his frustration with the music business in these lines from “Casualties”:
We ain’t ever gonna make it, like I thought we would
So why can’t we just pack it up and say we did the best we could
I used to be a decent man, then life just took its toll
Now I’m just a casualty of rock and roll
In addition to the band’s current resurgence, there has also been a big recent personal victory for B.J. Barham as well. The 31-year old (one of his arm tats bears the “1984” year of his birth) proudly mentioned the upcoming anniversary of his first year of sobriety. Tonight he spoke of how he came to the realization he just didn’t like the person his excesses were making him. The set closing “Family Problems” from Wolves says it well:
Just like my mother’s brother I got the family problems
She still calls me sobbing lord begging me to quit
And every time I see her she says I’ve got his eyes
And constantly reminds me he was dead by 45
And what a band, Barham has behind him. They are a solid group of musicians, much like his contemporary Isbell’s 400 Unit. The band were at their finest on a tune like “Jacksonville” where they really took some time to stretch and sound a bit trippy in the process. Throughout the night, the twin guitars of Ryan Johnson and new band member, Colin DiMeo were nicely flanked by the pedal steel of Whit Wright.
The evening’s show was broadcast live on Lightning 100’s (WRLT-FM) Nashville Sunday Night. Their strict one-hour format will test an artist’s timing of their set to both finish on time and with their planned closing number. To keep on track, midway during the set, B.J. turned and axed a song off the set list sensing that things might be running over. (On the set list as “Prine” and most likely their frequent cover of John’s “Spanish Pipedream.”)
While the weekly broadcasts are limited to the 9pm to 10pm time slot, bands usually continue after the station’s sign off. However, for whatever reason tonight (maybe the fill-in DJ didn’t tell them?), AA thought they could only play the hour. But, the very zealous crowd managed to bring them back, possibly the result of the guy who kept loudly singing AA’s “Katherine Belle” until B.J, came back out!
Thinking that he somehow was breaking the rules, Barham kept the encore songs to only two: a solo acoustic “Road to Nowhere” and a full band “Rambling Ways.” With that, we were out of there early and home in time for the late news.
Tonight’s show marked the end of their current tour causing Barham to remark how great it will be to sleep in his own bed tomorrow night. AA boasts playing 250 dates a year for the last ten years. Hopefully for them, it’s time that all of their hard work will pay off. I’m one new major fan who is delighted that they stayed together. This is a band I plan on never again missing when they play Music City.
Speaking of which, American Aquarium returns to town at midnight on Friday, September 18th at the Mercy Lounge as a part of the Americana Music Festival. See you there!
- Man I’m Supposed to Be
- Southern Sadness
- Lonely Ain’t Easy
- Losing Side of Twenty-Five
- End Over End
- Who Needs a Song
- Family Problems
- Road to Nowhere (B.J. acoustic)
- Rambling Ways
B.J. Barham–acoustic guitar and lead vocals
Whit Wright–pedal steel and keyboards